3. Viking Settlement and Society:
The Norwegian presence in Corcach Mór na Mumhan was interrupted by invaders from Denmark circa 914 A.D. who also attacked other Viking towns in Ireland and gained control of them. In Cork, these new invaders – the Danish Vikings – started off by raiding the monastery on the hillside but soon turned their attention to wealthier and more powerful Gaelic kingdoms in Munster.
The Danes decided to settle in Ireland. They took over and adapted existing Norwegian bases and constructed additional ones to a similar but larger design. Unfortunately, the information available regarding a Danish settlement at Cork is historically and archaeologically deficient compared to that arising from excavations in Waterford and Dublin. Nevertheless, there are some clues that give an insight into the location, structure and society of Danish Viking Age Cork. It is known that there were at least three main areas of settlement: firstly, they lived on the southern valley side next to the monastery, the core area of which is present-day Barrack Street; secondly, they settled on a marshy island now the location of South Main Street, the Beamish and Crawford Brewery, Hanover Street and Bishop Lucey Park; and thirdly they settled on the adjacent northern valleyside, now the area of John Street in Lower Blackpool.
The first area of settlement was located south of the site of FinBarre’s monastery on the southern hillside, extending from what is now present-day Frenches Quay-Barrack Street area to the area of Georges Quay. On the monastery side, the only Viking placename evidence is in the form of Keyser’s Hill. The name Keyser is Scandinavian in origin and means ‘the path leading to the quayside’. This suggests the existence of trackways through settlement and associated basic quays adjacent to the River Lee. On the other side there was a little harbour, reflected in the present name Cove Street, and a central routeway that led to St Sepulchre’s Church, located in the area of present-day Douglas Street. In fact, St. Sepulchre is alleged to be one of four Christian churches founded in Late Viking Age Cork, c.AD1000. The other four included St. Mary del Nard and St. Michael’s, both located just west of present-day Barrack Street, St. Brigid’s, located in the present-day area of Deerpark, in Turners Cross, and St. John the Evangelist, located somewhere in what is now the central campus of UCC.
The second habitation zone was located on an adjacent marshy island, an area now occupied by Beamish and Crawford, South Main Street, Hanover Street and Bishop Lucey Park. An enclosing fortification of either timber or stone encompassed the settlement, and the entrance comprised a timber bridge called Droichet, similar to the Irish derivation droichead, meaning bridge. In Viking times Droichet would have linked the second Viking habitation on the island to the first habitation zone on the southern hillside. South Gate bridge now marks the spot of Droichet.
Since 1977, there have been several archaeological excavations in the South Main Street area, which have revealed Danish Viking Age material. Among the most prominent of these finds are: a trackway and oyster shell pits, discovered in 1977 on the site of what is now Bishop Lucey Park; foundations of a mid-twelfth century sill-beam house (grooved horizontal timber foundation beams in which other wall timbers were placed), a central hearth, roof supports and broken pottery sherds were found off Hanover Street in 1996; part of an early twelfth-century timber property fence was revealed in 1997 when foundations were being laid for a nightclub on Tuckey Street; work by the Cork Main Drainage Scheme on the intersection of Washington Street and South Main Street in 2002 uncovered part of a late Viking Age wattle house. (Wattle was a framework made of large twigs woven together and covered in a mixture of straw and mud).
The third habitation zone was situated on the northern valleyside, primarily around present-day Lower Blackpool, through which the Kiln River flows before joining the northern channel of the River Lee, directly across from Cork Opera House. The origin of the name Kiln River is unknown, but its waters comprise three main streams: the Glen River, the Kilnap River and the Bride River. The name ‘Kiln’ is used to describe the meeting of these three rivers at Blackpool. It is known that a Viking water mill, St. John’s Mill, was located on the Kiln River. In the 1920s work on John Street revealed an inscribed stone with the inscription: St. John’s Mill 1020 A.D. In 1844, just north of this site at Kilbarry in upper Blackpool, a Viking Age hoard was discovered accidentally by Denis Murray during farming operations. In May of that year, Murray’s find was displayed at the meeting of a Cuverian Society, an upper-class antiquarian club, which reported that the hoard consisted of approximately fifty silver rings in a wooden box. Burying hoards of silver was common practice during Viking times.
It is known that trading took place in the Danish Viking settlement. The monks in the adjacent monastery recorded in their annals that once could get a boat from Cork to mainland Europe. Goods such as wine and salt comprised the main imported commodities. Wine would have been imported for church use while salt would have been imported for the preservation of meat. The exact source of these commodities is unknown; remaining documentary evidence suggests that the trading network reached across to Britain and France. In terms of exports, it is likely that the principle exports were sheep’s wool, hides and meat from cattle and fish from the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea. It is also possible that perhaps an internal trading system was set up between the Cork Viking port and other the Danish Viking ports at Youghal and Kinsale.
We also know that trade was conducted with the monastery and also with local Gaelic families, with whom the Vikings had made alliances. It is unfortunate that much of the surviving documentation does not give a detailed account of the relationship between the natives and the foreigners. Adjacent to the Viking settlement on the northern valleyside was a Gaelic Irish ringfort settlement called Sean Dún (later anglicized as Shandon). The McCarthy clan owned this and they also had strong territorial claims throughout counties Cork and Kerry. Sean Dún, which means ‘old fort’, was one of a number of fortifications on the clan’s land. The main historical evidence for this area comes from Cormac McCarthy’s Vetus Castellarium, which dates between 1128 and 1131 and describes the system of power-sharing, especially equal trading rights, which existed between the McCarthys and the Vikings.
To obtain an overview of what the Viking settlement may have been like for its citizens, we must combine information from finds in Cork with evidence retrieved at excavations in Waterford and Dublin. The settlement on the island had a central routeway on a north-south axis. Property plots, laneways, outhouses, storage pits would have run at right angles to the routeway itself. Houses within the settlement would have been small and basic, comprising one large room and a maximum of two other rooms. They would have been made of timber or wattle and daub with thatched roofs, which meant there was always a risk of fire. Life in the town would have been harsh. Although no skeletal remains have yet been found in any of the three primary habitation zones, evidence from other sites indicates that the lifespan would have been short, with most people living no longer than thirty to forty years. In Cork, the mortality rate would have been influenced by overcrowding, inadequate waste disposal and the effects of living on damp, marshy land. The presence of rubbish would have attracted rats, while the smoke from the household fires would have polluted the air. Infectious diseases such as influenza and tuberculosis would have been rife.
Links – other Viking Ages towns in Ireland:
Birka the viking town that archeologists excavated near modern-day Stockholm, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7uXZSowFPw