Traces of Vikings in Northern-Ireland

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Display at the Ulster Museum, Belfast, Northern-Ireland.

‘Loose canons’ I muttered under my breath as I read the text announcing the Viking Age exhibit in the Ulster Museum. It was the last day of a five-day visit to Northern-Ireland. Since the weather forecast predicted the final day of my trip to be the coldest and wettest, I decided to keep a visit to the Ulster Museum in Belfast for my last day in the city. The Viking exhibit was a small one showing only a couple of artifacts found mainly in grave sites and hoards in the counties Armagh and Antrim. ‘Loose canons’ seems rather unfit for Vikings sailing to and trying to settle in Northern Ireland. Unlike the Southern part of the isle, where the Vikings established a first Viking kingdom as early as the ninth century, the Northern part of the isle experienced little or no troubles from the Vikings. This also explains the scarcity of Viking finds in this particular area.

The first days of my stay in Northern-Ireland, I traveled along the Causeway Coastal route taking its name from the Giant’s Causeway that lies along the route. A very scenic route along the rough coastline of Northern Ireland stretching from Belfast all the way up to Londonderry. I traversed about two-thirds of the route up to the Gaint’s Causeway.

A first place of interest along the Causeway Coastal route, Viking interest that is, is the coastal town of Larne. Larne, also known in Old-Norse as Ulfreksfjordr, is a seaport and market town along the coast in County Antrim. In the tenth and eleventh century it was the centre of Viking activity. This is seen from Viking burial sites and artifacts found in this area that could be dated to that particular time period. Snorri Sturluson mentions Ulfreksfjordr in his Heimskringla as the place where the king of Ireland, Connor, defeated the Orkney Vikings under the leadership of earl Einar in battle in 1018.

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A second Viking site of interest along the Coastal route is Fair Head, a rocky headland. According to local legend, a young Irish girl with long fair hair lived in this region and she was promised to the Viking lord who reigned over Rathlin Island. However, she was in love with another and refused to accept the Viking lord’s demand to become his wife. Two times he asked for her hand, and two times she refused saying “My heart belongs to another.” One final time, the Viking lord asked for her hand while he held her by her long fair hair threatening to throw her off the cliff if she refused his request. Once again, she declined his offer uttering “My heart belongs to another.” The Viking lord, furious with rage, swung her off the cliff by her hair … However, the clever Irish maiden kept a firm hold on him dragging him with her to their deaths. Since then the headland is known as Fair Head.

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View on Fair Head from Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, County Antrim.

Rathlin Island, mentioned previously, was the first recorded site of a Viking raid in Ireland in 795, according to the Annals of Ulster. The church on the island was plundered and burned.

“Loscadh Rechrainne o geinntib & Sci do choscradh & do lomradh.”

‘The burning of Reachrainn by plunderers; and its shrines were broken and plundered.’

(Abstract from the Annals of Ulster, entry for AD 795.)

There is a white Viking standing stone overlooking Church Bay on the island. The stone marks a Viking graveyard, which was excavated as early as 1784. According to the Archaeology of Rathlin Island, each grave was formed from rough slabs and covered with large flat stones and a large silver penannular brooch was found in the grave marked by the standing stone. The so-called Rathlin Brooch was probably made by a Viking from one of the Irish or Scottish colonies sometime in the late 9th century. The brooch is on public display in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin.

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Rathlin Island seen from Ballintoy, County Antrim.

A final place of interest along the Causeway Coastal route is Dunluce Castle. The area around Dunluce Castle is the alleged scene of a battle between the Vikings and local Irish tribes in the 12th century. The sand hills of the East Strand were known as the War Hollow, following the ambush of the Norsemen who returned there with plunder after capturing Dunluce Castle. On the 24th of August 1103, the king of Norway, Magnus III Olafsson, lost his head and his army was sent packing back to the Orkneys. The Norseman’s hoard of silver still lies buried somewhere in the hills.

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Dunluce Castle seen from Dunluce Road, County Antrim.

Unlike in the South of the isle, the Vikings didn’t seem to be able to permanently settle and establish towns or even kingdoms in Ulster. Apart from some archaeological sites in the counties Antrim and Armagh, not a lot of artifacts were retrieved that can be linked to the Vikings. Furthermore only two irish places-names in Northern-Ireland are derived from Old Norse: Larne or Ulfreksfjordr (‘fjord of Ulfrek’) and Strangford (‘strong-fjord’). Furthermore, most of the Viking raids seem to be concentrated around Dublin and the East-South coast of Ireland. So, one can hardly talk of ‘loose cannons’ when talking about Vikings in Northern-Ireland.

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