Cross-disciplinary Studies of Migration of Irish, Hiberno-Norse and other Gaelic-speaking populations in the Viking Age

Viking Age Textbooks:
a chronologically arranged overview of texts available in an Irish context...
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Viking Age Migration

Viking Age Migration to Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England

The study of Viking settlement on the island of Britain has traditionally been explored through three major disciplines;

  • historical research into written sources,
  • archaeological research into material culture and
  • linguistic research into the interface between Old Norse and insular languages.

Because of structural arrangements at third level and the similarities between Old Norse and Old English as two branches of Germanic, this last has predominantly dealt with onomastic (and in particular, place-name) evidence for Norse settlement in England. In Scotland, Norse settlement was particularly marked in the Northern Isles and Outer Hebrides although also extant in other areas of the country. As with all early medieval Scotland, there is relatively little historical documentation of this phenomenon but there has been extensive archaeological investigation and some work on the influence of Old Norse on Scots Gaelic. In Wales, in contrast, Norse settlement is not widely attested outside Milford Haven and the Gower peninsula although there is historical evidence to suggest Norse activity and an important recent discovery of an archaeological site by Red Wharf’s Bay in Anglesey. Suggestions have been made about literary influences of Old Norse saga on some medieval Welsh tales but there seems to be very little evidence for loanwords from Old Norse into Welsh.

Norse-speaking settlers in Ireland

Similar questions arise in relation to Old Norse speakers in Ireland although there is rather more evidence for loan-words from Old Norse into Old and Middle Irish. The most recent DNA research suggests that only a relatively small proportion of the settlers who founded Viking cities such as Dublin, Limerick, Waterford or Cork came directly to Ireland from the Scandinavian homelands and this contrasts markedly with archaeological material depicting a very distinct urban culture which was heavily influenced by the Nordic world. One of the on-going aims of the Genes of the Gallgoídil network is to develop research projects which explores the interfaces between the various scientific and humanist disciplines in the hope of resolving these historical conundrums.

A multi-culturalist past

Questions of ‘identity’, ethnic origin and cultural diaspora are popular topics in both academic and non-academic discourse. Traditional views of Irish identity have stressed the cultural uniqueness and relative isolation of the “Land of Saints and Scholars” but more recent scholarship has focussed instead on the interaction of medieval Ireland with its European neighbours. In particular, there is considerable interest in Scandinavian influence in Ireland following the visit of the “Sea Stallion”, a reconstruction of the eleventh-century Irish warship found in Roskilde, in Denmark. There has also been a recent interest in ‘Viking’ genes in the media. Greater mobility of people in the twentieth century has led to an increase of awareness of ‘roots’ among European people, sometimes with dubious and dangerous claims of ‘ethnic’ integrity. Genes of the Gallgoídil aims to offer a different and more nuanced perspective, providing information on both the possibilities and limitations of studying past identities. In the specific context of the classroom, therefore, we aim to contribute to the ongoing awareness  of the values of  diversity and multi-culturalism in bringing together new approaches and new ways of thinking.

Primary school textbooks on Vikings in Ireland

The portrayal of Vikings in school textbooks in Ireland underwent substantial change in the aftermath of the large-scale urban excavations of the 1970s and 1980s. Prior to these, the Vikings tended to be considered primarily as enemy raiders who attacked and destroyed Irish monasteries and Christian sites. The figure of King Brian Boru was often used to represent local resistance to such attacks. As a result of the Dublin excavations at Christchurch, High Street Wood Quay and Fishamble Street and subsequently in Wexford, Waterford and Cork, a far greater emphasis has tended to be placed on their role as founders of Irish cities and as traders active in the wider Viking world.

Portrayal of Vikings in primary school texts in Britain

In Britain, Vikings also form part of the primary school curriculum (Key Stages 2-4). A similar change from Vikings as raiders to Vikings as settlers can be seen there, mirroring the ongoing growth and development of archaeology as a discipline. The on-going popularity of the heritage centre of Jorvik at York, in particular, has given powerful impetus to the public appreciation of Scandinavian settlement and their contribution to British culture. In contrast to the situation in Ireland, there are no large towns or cities in Britain which see themselves as solely “Viking” foundations but, unlike Ireland, there are large regions such as Yorkshire or the Lakes where there is extensive place-name evidence for settlement in rural environments.
Because Vikings form part of the curriculum in both jurisdictions, there is very considerable amount of teaching material which is available in both print and on-line. It should be borne in mind, however, that there are some important regional differences between the two. In particular, the history of Scandinavian settlement in eastern England is predominantly by Danes whereas Norwegian Vikings appear to have been the major colonizers in northern and western Scotland. Further south, most obviously in the Wirral (between Liverpool and Chester), many of the Scandinavian settlers appear to have links with Ireland.

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