Friday 20 April 2018

Sheila Dooley - Dublinia education officer: When I imagine Vikings, I picture them itching, because they would have been demented by fleas

Sheila Dooley (38) is curator and education officer at Dublinia. She studied history and archaeology. From Freshford, Co Kilkenny, she now lives in Chapelizod, Dublin. When she is not thinking about history, Sheila likes to play the drums

Sheila Dooley (38) is curator and education officer at Dublinia. Photo: Dave Conachy.
Sheila Dooley (38) is curator and education officer at Dublinia. Photo: Dave Conachy.

I get out of bed at 7.30am. I'm not a morning person, but I struggle through it with a smile. The radio goes on - either Newstalk or TXFM. I have to have a soundtrack to my daily movements. I put on the porridge and then it's out the door and on the bike. I live in Chapelizod. It's a delightful cycle to work, and time to think about the day.

On a slow morning, it takes 25 minutes to cycle into work in Dublinia. I'm the curator and education officer. I'm in charge of the collection that we have on loan from the National Museum of Ireland. It is basically artefacts that have been dug out of the ground, from across the road in Wood Quay in the 70s and 80s. We also have a Viking warrior on display, complete with his skeleton and his grave goods.

Think of looking into your rubbish bin - well, this is like looking back 1,000 years earlier at a rubbish bin. It's hugely voyeuristic. We have shoes, games and brooches. There were no pockets or zips, so they had these beautiful implements to keep their cloaks closed. We also have beautiful pottery; that is a phrase I never thought I'd say when I was studying archaeology. When you're digging on site and you come across your millionth piece of pottery, it does wear a bit thin. The beauty of these artefacts is that every single one of them has a secret and it's up to me, as a curator, to unlock that secret. I love it.

When I was doing my master's, it was about personal sources - which are basically, you, 1,000 years ago, writing down your feelings and thoughts with your quill on a parchment. To come back today and pick that up is very emotional. It's astounding to think that you get back into people's heads from that era. You never truly understand what people thought, but at least you get a glimpse into it.

One of the most moving primary sources that I came across was an illuminated manuscript, and then, in the margin, almost as an afterthought, there was this beautifully written poem. It dates back to the Eighth Century, when the Vikings were first starting to cause havoc on the monastic scene. The poem is translated from Latin. It says - 'The wind is rough tonight, tossing the white-combed oceans. I need not dread fierce Vikings crossing the Irish Sea.' Imagine sitting by your oil-lamp with your quill, working on your manuscript, and your back is probably sore and you are hearing the wind outside and you think, 'That's a good thing. I'm safe'. It must have been terrifying.

It's the same with Gunnar upstairs - that's the nickname for our Viking skeleton. We've found out so much about him. By looking at his teeth, and, in particular, by analysing rainwater from different areas, we can tell he was from north Norway. It's that specific. He dates back to 800, when the earliest raids were occurring in Ireland. He was buried under the offices of Dunnes Stores on South Great George's Street.

They found him in 2003. They were finishing a dig there, when a bone turned up and the development had to be put on hold. His remains were found with four others. By looking at his jaw, we can tell that he was between 17-25 years old. And he had a back problem. Gunnar was 1.76 metres tall, left-handed and he had lice. We know this because we found his comb, which had close-together teeth, especially for lice.

Back then, Dublin was infested with fleas and lice. When I imagine Vikings, I picture them itching, because they would have been demented by this.

During my working day, I'll check my emails. I'm working on a heavily illustrated book on Viking Dublin at the moment. I'm in a wonderful position of being able to market the past in an accessible way, to make it less esoteric. That's what we do in Dublinia. It's historically accurate and it's hands-on learning - or, as we call it in the industry, hands-on, minds-on. There are no do-not-touch signs. Living history is very important, too. That is when people dress in authentic costumes. Some days when I am training the guides, I dress up in Viking clothes. I remind them to take off their nail varnish and put their earrings in the locker. It has to be authentic. I usually have lunch at my desk - a salad. In the Viking era, they only had two meals a day - a lot of vegetable stews. They had no forks, but they used a knife for everything. Work is from 9am until the job is done. When I'm doing research, I need quiet time.

On the way home, I often wonder if people realise the history which surrounds them. So many of these streets have a story. Fishamble Street, where they sold fish from Wood Quay, which was made of wood. All of these clues are in our streets. You go past Cook Street, where medieval people cooked their bread because it was outside the city walls. You couldn't have ovens inside, because it was a huge fire risk. That wall is still there. You can gaze up at it and blink at the sheer scale of it.

My interest in history stems from my parents. Every Sunday, we used to be thrown into the back of the car and brought to the nearest or furthest historic house. We have chronological images of us at various ages standing in front of an oak chest from the 17th Century, or a huge fireplace from the 18th Century. Also, dad was an auctioneer, dealing with antiques. Being from Kilkenny played a part in it, too. It's a medieval city and it understands how tourism and heritage work together.

When I get home in the evenings, I put on a podcast and make my dinner. Sometimes I run upstairs and bang on my drums for a while. I try to play them before the neighbours' kids go to bed at 7pm. I've been learning the drums for a couple of years and I love it. If I'm not thinking about history, I'm thinking about drumbeats. The sound gets into the pit of your stomach and makes you smile.

In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

Sunday Independent

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