My latest forays in Viking era Ireland took me on a road of discovery.
You may recall one of my previous posts where we talked about longphorts. These were among the prominent developments of Viking era Ireland. From the longphorts, the Scandinavian settlers established trade towns, some of which grew to become the larger cities in Ireland today, the most popular being Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Waterford, and Wexford.
My novels feature most of these trade ports. So it became necessary to delve a little further into what they might’ve been like in the 10th century.
It stands to reason that if a trade town was established by the Vikings, then the characteristics of that town are going to be Scandinavian in nature, right down to the architecture.
This presumption led me to begin research on Scandinavian architecture in Ireland. What better source to seek first, than the archaeological discoveries made?
My go-to source was The Vikings in Ireland and Beyond: Before and After the Battle of Clontarf. Edited by Howard B. Clarke and Ruth Johnson.
I was on the hunt for Viking housing and the ever iconic Viking longhouse. After all, Ireland was home to some notorious Viking kings. Surely these men lived in a longhouse.
Most assuredly, that needed to be in my book!
Visions of these kings and their jarls feasting round a great central hearth, frothy ale sloshing form their drinking horns, and their boisterous revelry reaching to the steep-pitched rooftop, filled my mind. This is the stuff stories are made of!
Then the vision came to a juddering halt.
The Viking longhouse, one of the classic symbols of Viking culture, is totally absent from Ireland. I couldn’t believe my eyes. In fact I had to reread the passages attesting to this just to see if I’d missed something.
Surely they were mistaken!
I mean, throughout my studies I recalled reading reference after reference of kings and their residences. Then these guys tell me, none of those halls were longhouses. Preposterous!
But it’s true.
To date, archaeologists have not found evidence of structures resembling the infamous Viking longhouse in Ireland. Instead, they’ve found structures representing the perfect blending of Scandinavian and Irish styles.
So the old saying it seems, rings true once more, “The invaders became more Irish than the Irish themselves.”
Or at least, Irish enough to adapt their new homes.
Scandinavian housing still carried a distinct Norse flavor, right?
So what were typical characteristics of a Scandinavian style home in Viking era Ireland? I had to find out.
Now before you get all smart with me about how most housing is rectangular, here me out. It’s true, rectangular housing was common to both Irish and their Viking counterparts. However, many of the Irish homes found throughout Ireland were circular. In fact, rectangular homes weren’t commonplace with the Irish until the 9th century.
Sunken-floored & Sill-beamed
You’re going to laugh, but yes, even the Irish built sunken-floored housing. So why would that distinguish a building as Viking? Well, alone it doesn’t. But in conjunction with the building being rectangular, there’s a good chance Scandinavian influences are afoot.
Now sill-beam construction occurred in Scandinavia for some time, but wasn’t common to Ireland until the 12th century. A sill-beam is a long wooden beam at the base of a wall which posts and studs are fitted into.
Unfortunately for me, that trait wasn’t common for the homes of my Scandinavian characters, because they lived in the 10th century.
Central Hearths, Side-aisles, and Internal Paving
Large, rectangular, central hearths, along with raised side aisles, and internal paving, are also considered to be uniquely Scandinavian. But guess what? All three features can be found in native Irish roundhouses, with only slightly different forms.
We’re batting zero to three here, aren’t we?
This is the only true characteristic distinguishing a Scandinavian dwelling from its Irish counterpart. The unfortunate thing is that only two bow-sided structures were found in Ireland. The interesting fact about these structures is that longhouses were typically bow-sided, and often thought to be modeled after the Viking longship. Both buildings are unusually large, and date from the 9th century. Both structures are speculated to be a type of hall like a longhouse.
So, now that I have you shaking your head (hopefully with a smile on your face), you’re probably wondering the same thing I was at the end of this venture.
What really does distinguish a Viking home from an Irish one?
Artifacts are the biggest indicator. Fragments, of vessels, plaques, combs, tools and weaponry that bear Scandinavian designs or motifs often serve as strong evidence for a Scandinavian dwelling or community. Yes, even these artifacts are a stretch at times. Trading, intermarriage, and the incessant raiding occurring between both parties, made the likelihood of Irish residents having Scandinavian treasures fairly common.
But if Scandinavian artifacts dominate the site, and all other factors line up, it’s a safe assumption you’re on the right track to unearthing a genuine Scandinavian home.