Turtle Bunbury

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Vikings Ahoy!


This article featured in Visitor Magazine in August 2005.

Today is Odin's Dag. Tomorrow is Thor's Dag. Then it's a quick whizz through Frida's Dag and roll on the weekend. That's Vikings for you. Always turning up when least expected. But if you have to name the days of the week after anyone, why not run with Viking Gods? Everyone loves a Viking. There's something bizarrely cuddly about those great burly oafs swanning about in their horny helmets, bopping people on the head, downing bucket-loads of grog, dreaming of lusty Valhalla maidens and generally making an utter nuisance of themselves. Honour and courage. That's what it was all about. Oh, and a bit of rape and pillage for good measure. There aren't many people revered for their ferocity. But ask any fancy dress salesman for a horny hat these days and he'll tell you he's fresh out.

The ghost of many an Irish Monk must be bewildered by the growing popularity of their arch nemesis. All across this country you will see structures helpfully called "Round Towers". There are many reasons for their existence but none carry as much weight as this one: they were built by Irish Monks so that, on seeing a Viking approaching, anybody who was not a Viking could run inside and hide. A keen observer of a Round Tower will note the Front Door is generally about 15 - 20 feet above ground level. Whilst this may look somewhat anti-social, one must envision such a doorway as it might have looked, say, 1200 years ago. The main feature missing from the current day picture is a Rope Ladder. So, the theory runs thus: Non-Viking looks out Useful Gap at top of Round Tower and scans neighbourhood for Viking Mob. If he espies said Mob, he swiftly bellows such a sighting to another Non-Viking who rings nearby Iron Bell with great vigour. This means everyone has only a very short time to leg it over to the Round Tower and climb up to the Front Door before the Rope Ladder is whipped away. All going according to plan, everyone is safe and silent as church mice by the time the Vikings arrive on the scene. The Vikings can't get into the Tower because they haven't got a ladder. So hopefully they just mill around head-banging cows, playing tig and looking for golden chalices before getting bored and charging off to the next place. But if somebody were to sneeze…

Taken from the Norse word for piracy, "Viking" is the term used to define a persistent group of sea-faring marauders from Norway, Denmark and Sweden whose antics, from about 700 to 1100 AD, dominated crisis talks at Foreign Affairs Departments from Russia to Gibraltar to Ballydehob, County Cork. For a long time, nobody knew what a Viking was because, being from Scandinavia, they generally stayed at home, looking after their farmsteads and not realizing there was anybody else about to plunder. In fact, you'd hardly credit it, but before they became Vikings, Danes and Norwegian sailors liked nothing better than an afternoons' ice skating and dropping anchor for a quiet game of Nine Man Morris and a bowl of Gravalax. They even found time to invent things like tweezers and nail clippers. Then a clever Norwegian invented something truly incredible: a woolen sail that enabled ships to hit unimagined speeds of 10 knots an hour. Soon the wily Danes figured that if they sanded their oakwood ships smoother than marble, they too could attain phenomenal speeds. At length, the Danes and Norwegians hooked up and swapped inventions. Somebody cracked open a beer and everyone got to wondering what could possibly be done with this Great Discovery. Meanwhile, in the merry glens of Ireland, the monks and peasant girls skipped gaily through the forests, plucking blackberries and singing hey-diddle-dum.

After the Roman Empire fell, Europe was plunged into an Age of Darkness. One small island shone the beacon of hope and that island was Ireland. Hidden beneath the thin veneer of Ireland's saintly and scholarly reputation, there was also much talk of Ireland's great wealth of gold and silver. In time, such talk whispered across the cold north seas and into the hairy ears of Viking chiefs. Axes were sharpened. Alcoholic beverage was consumed. Thunderous gods were invoked. Stealthily, the dragon-prowed long-ships crept into the water and set forth on their blitzkrieg raids.

At first, a raid was just that, a hit and run robbery, then back to the sea and tot up the booty score. But gradually they copped that if they stuck up wooden walls and threw axes at passing snoops, they could establish Viking enclaves all along the Irish coast. Thus did the Vikings beget the Irish towns of Cork, Limerick and any place that ended with "fjord". Hence "Vadre Fjord" (Waterford), "Weiss Fjord" (Wexford) and so forth. The Vikings thought slaves were a Good Idea and, in time, they set up a Slave Market too. This was located beside an ugly black pool at the mouth of the River Liffey. They kept the old Irish name: "Dubh Linn" rather than call it Blackpool.

The Irish, of course, were none to pleased to see these newcomers invade their space. For one thing, it distracted them from their traditional pastime of killing each other. Now they were forced to make friends with rival chieftain and gang up against the Vikings. Moreover, Round Towers or not, the Monks were taking an awful hiding and Odin only knows how many sacks full of jewelry were being carried out of the country. But eventually, as every child of Erin can tell you, Brian Boru and his Merry Men whipped the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf, Good Friday, 1014 AD. The longships fled into the night, some back to their homes amid the fjords, others to Iceland and still more ventured west for a mystical land populated by strange dark men who danced around totem poles. That's the story anyway. But I assure you there's still plenty of blonde headed Gravalax munchers roaming the country today, even if they don't know they hail from the land of Tweezers and Thor.