THE most important Viking settlement ever found in Europe would have been lost forever were it not for an Augustinian priest who led the public campaign to halt its destruction by Dublin Corporation.
Fr FX Martin, the leader of the 'Save Wood Quay' campaign in the 1970s, was honoured at a ceremony in the National Library yesterday after it acquired his personal papers relating to the struggle, which ultimately failed to stop the local authority from building its civic offices on the site.
Discovered in the late 1970s, there was a public outcry over the decision to destroy the archaeological remains of what was regarded as one of the most important Viking sites in Europe.
The excavations, only made possible because the wrecking balls were delayed because of legal challenges, revealed new evidence about Viking and medieval settlements in Dublin.
It included evidence of earthen defences, wattle-and-daub houses and part of the city's original stone wall, which was saved.
Director of the National Museum Dr Pat Wallace said yesterday that had Fr Martin not tried to stop the works, the "best evidence" ever found about Viking settlements would have been lost.
Dr Wallace was the archaeologist in charge of excavations.
"We stayed out of it [the political row], we had to, but we used the campaign to rescue the good name of the National Museum, which was a mess given that our two senior officials sided with the corporation," he said.
"What was found there was the best evidence of town layout and urbanisation from 920 to 1100. It's the story of the beginning of mainstream European urbanisation. That's what was found and documented, which would have been lost had Fr Martin not led those marches and taken those court cases." Evidence was revealed of successive waterfronts on the River Liffey from the 10th to the 13th centuries.
Among the artefacts found were jewellery, including pendants of Baltic amber and glass, objects of carved Walrus ivory, an antler comb case, gaming counters and worked leather items, which provided evidence of Viking craftsmanship. In 1978, part of the site was declared a national monument.
Born Francis Martin in Co Kerry in 1922, in 1963 he was appointed head of UCD's Department of Medieval History. In 1976, he was elected chairman of the Friends of Medieval Dublin.
This led to his involvement in the 'Save Wood Quay' campaign. Although he failed to prevent the erection of the Civic Offices, despite appeals to both the courts and public opinion, he did gain an invaluable delay that allowed excavations to be concluded. He died in 2000.
An exhibition of selected Wood Quay campaign-related materials is on display in the library's main hall for the next three months.