• Olaf Guthfrithsson, the Viking king of Dublin (played by Tim O’Sullivan). (Tile Films Ltd)Source: Tile Films Ltd
Two-part docu-drama ‘Viking Empires’ explores the inroads the Vikings made in Ireland and England - and the legacy they left behind.
SBS Guide

20 May 2022 - 9:59 AM  UPDATED 26 May 2022 - 11:56 AM

“Who were the Vikings? And why did they leave their homes to raid and invade far-off lands?”

These are the questions this alluring Irish series sets out to answer, in two episodes titled ‘The Dark Foreigners’ and ‘The Dynasty of Ivarr’.

There is something about Vikings that appeals to many of us. Is it the wild hair? The impassioned roaring? The risk-taking adventures on the high seas?

Narrated by Moe Dunford (Vikings, Dublin Murders), in this two-part series we hear about new discoveries in science and archaeology that challenge what we thought we knew about Vikings.

Ireland's 'dark foreigners'

While many see Vikings as violent plunderers (which was often the case), recent discoveries have found more practical reasons they sought resources elsewhere. Already master shipbuilders by the 8th century, for decades, they set sail from Norway on raiding expeditions.

The Vikings’ modus operandi, we're told, was to move in, gather up as much loot and slaves as could fit in the ships, and take off again. Mounting up a stash of booty and slaves could only elevate a Viking’s status. Their targets were the rich monasteries of Britain and Ireland. Tenaya Jorgensen of Trinity College Dublin, tells us “these monasteries and churches were largely unprotected, which meant that the Norse were able to come over and pillage them without much opposition”.

While they always returned home, from about 840, something changed. Archaeologists have found evidence of settlements in Ireland, and Dublin was one of the Vikings’ most important centres in Europe. Then, in 850, the “dark foreigners” arrived, thusly dubbed by the Irish to distinguish from the “fair foreigners” who had already conquered them and their city. Ivarr and Olaf the White led these dark foreigners who “seemed like a different breed: more ambitious and ruthless than the fair foreigners. And soon they showed their predecessors who was in control.”

The main ambition of the new contingent was the international slave trade, putting both their well-trained army of warriors and fast-sailing ships to profitable use. In 2020, a major harbour was unearthed beside Dublin’s Castle Garden. It would’ve been large enough to hold some 200 ships filled with slaves.

Ivarr then dipped his toe into more serious conquest. Finding Ireland too tricky to take over, his prize was a fledgling England. And he found success. For decades, York was a sister Viking city of sorts to Dublin, and Ivarr’s sons and grandsons continued his leadership. Then, at the turn of the century, the Irish attacked, setting back the Vikings when they least expected it. But a bigger battle was to come – one that would set the course of England, and see the return of Ivarr’s descendants to continue their forefather’s ambitions.


Ivarr’s dynasty

Ivarr “was the progenitor of a Viking empire, and that’s why the grandsons of Ivarr are feared so much, because Ivarr himself is considered such a vast, huge, monumental figure,” says Trinity College’s Gavin Hughes.

One of Ivarr’s grandsons, Sitric, was determined to return after being driven out by the Irish, and make his mark – and that, he did. After a mighty battle, the dark foreigners had regained control of Dublin, and built a well-planned town unearthed in the 1970s by the archaeology team led by Pat Wallace, then just 25 years old. Wallace tells us that “we know more about Dublin in the tenth century and early eleventh than we do of any other town in northwest Europe, even London and Paris.”

The Vikings had a major influence on many aspects of life that look familiar to us today, more than a thousand years on. “One of the[ir] major physical legacies is the establishment of the rectangular form of building as the ordinary domestic house,” Wallace says. He also credits the Vikings with much more. “They gave us our first real mainstream European towns with town plots, town layouts, a consistent building type inherited over the ages. Consistent positioning of property, all of that. Defended towns.”

The discoveries continue, many of them recent, precipitated by archaeological investigation prior to major roadworks taking place in Ireland. Genetic studies find deeper connections between Britain, Ireland, Iceland and Norway. We learn about “the greatest battle yet fought on English soil”. And we gain an appreciation of the legacy of the Vikings on our modern-day society and in the population’s very genomes. Perhaps what appeals to us, is that “in some way, shape or form, we are all Viking”.

With plenty of experts on hand to guide us through these far-off days of major drama, where everyday life was dictated by fear and a fight for survival, Viking Empires is an exciting look at a fascinating time on Earth.

Viking Empires is now streaming at SBS On Demand. Start here:


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