If you, like me, have a lineage that links back to Vikings, you can easily turn your next family holiday into a Viking Crusade. Decide which country you’ll focus on and go from there.
My maiden name is Norman, which tends to raise a few eyebrows when travelling through parts of Europe and makes for a myriad of adventures abroad when tracing our ancestry. Most people assume that the Norman lineage originated from Normandy in France, however this is only partially true. To be more precise, the Normans were Vikings, descendants of Norse raiders and Pirates of Denmark, Norway and Iceland.
The Norsemen, or Normans as they became called, travelled often between Scandinavia and what is now known as France, Ireland, and the UK. Sailing along the coastlines, they raided and pillaged, taking hoards of silver and bronze and returning to their homelands with the plunder.
The Vikings had a tendency to invade fertile lands, erect castles, hill forts, and hunting lodges, establishing base camps to return to during their trade journeys. England and Ireland were particularly appealing, with wide-open coastlines and fertile soil for cattle and crops. The majority of Ireland was settled by invading Vikings, who then established trade bases before eventually settling permanently.
Since Ireland has a rich history of invasion and a myriad of places to visit in search of Viking history, my Viking Crusade holiday begins here. If you’d also love to trace your Viking ancestry on a wild adventure through the Emerald Isle, here’s what I’d recommend.
Since most flights into Ireland land in Dublin, I’ve made it the starting point of our itinerary.
- The National Museum of Ireland, which has one of the finest collections of Viking artefacts in Europe. It houses a 4500 year old Viking logboat, the Annaghkeen, one of twelve Viking ships that were unearthed in 2014, along with a stash of Viking weapons and tools. This was the most recent Viking archeological find. The Annaghkeen log boat was almost perfectly preserved, having sunken into the mud and remaining covered until the recent discovery. It is thought that the boats belonged to a crew of Irish Vikings who were on a raid when tragedy struck and their boats sunk.
- Dublinia, which is located in the impressive Christ Church Cathedral, features a historical recreation of the Viking and Medieval history of Ireland that is not to be missed. It’s extremely engaging and hands-on for children. Visitors here can try on Viking clothing, see their weaponry, learn the skills of being a Viking warrior, act out a scene as a slave and take a look inside a tiny Viking house. You’ll also learn about the Battle of Clontarf, which led to the demise of Viking control in medieval Ireland.
- This leads us to the next stop on our itinerary, Clontarf, just outside of Dublin. This was the site where some two thousand Vikings landed in longboats just before sunrise, leading to the gruesome Battle of Clontarf in 1014. The Irish, under their High King Brian Boru, defeated the invading Vikings, killing every Viking leader present and finally releasing Ireland from their control. Sip a coffee in one of the many seaside cafes or stroll along the promenade. You can spend the day at Bull Island Nature Reserve exploring. When you’re done, grab a meal at Vikings Steakhouse or the Yacht, an award-winning gastro pub featuring carvery food and listen to some live music at the Bram Stoker Pub.
The Clontarf Castle Hotel is my pick of places to stay in Dublin for our Viking crusade. From here you can easily access all tourist spots in Dublin. This is an upscale 4* hotel, in a Norman castle that was built in 1172. If you book through the hotel, they do offer family packages, including tickets on board the Viking Splash Tour, and even put on a treasure hunt through the castle for the little ones.
- Kilkenny is a vibrant city with festivals and yearlong events. It also has a strong medieval history that involves some of my own ancestors, if we can use the term loosely. Strongbow, the legendary Norman invader, built a fort in the 12th Century on the site where Kilkenny Castle still stands today. Strongbow’s son-in-law, William Marshall and the 4th Earl of Pembroke fortified the city walls, consolidated the Norman’s power over the city by building a stone castle on the site and fortifying the city walls. Kilkenny Castle is worth the visit and is located on Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile.
- Kilkenny is home to the Dunmore Cave. Millions of years old, the cave was first mentioned in the Irish Annals in 928 AD. A dark and grisly mystery surrounds the cave’s Viking history, as skeleton remains were found in its inner caverns. This gives credence to the story mentioned in the Annals of a massacre between warring Viking clans that took place here. Tours are conducted regularly for a small fee. In fact, as rumour has it, a tour guide lost his footing and unwittingly discovered a Viking hoard. The stash of silver coins, ingots, bracelets, bronze ornaments, and rare silks is now on display in the Visitor Centre.
Stay in one of Kilkenny’s quaint cottages for a cosy Irish stay. And while you’re here, see the Hurling Bar Museum. If you’ve got the time, Kilkenny is home to the Kilkenny Cats, Ireland’s champion Hurling team and its well worth your time and money to see a game. Not far down the road, you’ll also find Butler Gallery, a contemporary art space and a 16th Century tavern. Incidentally, the city is also said to have been home to the first of Europe’s witch trials and Ireland’s only witch trial. You can explore the story of Dame Alice Kyteler’s witch trial and eventual escape, at her 13th Century pub, the Kyteler, which is still standing.
- Better known for its crystal, Waterford is also an important exploration site for a Viking Crusade. The ‘Viking Triangle’ – the counties of Waterford, Kilkenny and Galway, begins here. When in Waterford, Reginald’s Tower is one of six surviving towers and a must see. A 12 metre replica Viking longboat is erected beside the Tower. Built in 1003, this is the oldest civic building in Ireland and the only urban moment to retain its Norse name. Reginald’s Tower, now part of the Waterford Museum of Treasures, formed a part of the ancient city walls that formed a defence against invasion. It was named after the Irish-Viking ruler of the city, Ragnall MacGillemaire, who was held prisoner here. Turgesius Tower (a Viking chief of the 9th Century) is another monument worth a look.
- Lough Lene, in County Westmeath claims to have been the home of many High Kings and Vikings, including Turgesius, (mentioned above). Here you can also visit the site of his Hill Fort home, overlooking the lake, as well as many ancient burial sites, old ruins and medieval village dwellings known as Ringforts, Stiles and Mass Paths. The lake is seeped in local legend and folklore, said to have been named after the daughter of Manannan mac Lir, from the legend the Children of Lir. As such, this folktale may be a good story to read ahead of your trip or on the road to our next stop and final destination, Athlone.
- What better way to end a Viking Crusade than aboard a heritage Viking Ship? Cruises aboard a 21-meter long replica Viking Knarr boat depart from Athlone Castle and complete a round trip from Easter to late October. In good weather, the boat can be sailed with most of the roof exposed, created a summery atmosphere – the perfect way to continue the journey. See fare prices and book here.
On the last leg of the trip, a boutique camping experience seems like a fabulous idea. Nestled in the picturesque village of Castletown, Co. Westmeath is Mount Druid, a 100-acre wood. The remains of an ancient medieval castle can still be explored on the grounds today, making this a unique place to stay. With several accommodation options to choose from, it’s hard to know what to choose. Take your pick from snug stone cottages, brightly coloured caravans or my favourite, Yurts. These are traditional wooden huts, imported from Mongolia for a luxury camping experience with a difference.