The cinematic journey back in time is nearly over. The History channel’s blockbuster hit, “Vikings” is scheduled to conclude its sixth – and final season in 2020.
But in Ireland the Vikings and their lasting influence still remain. An award-winning tour operator, Vagabond Small Group Tours of Ireland, recreates for visitors Ireland’s own Viking history in some of the places where the Vikings pillaged and plundered in their quest for precious baubles and arable lands.
The company’s Driftwood: 6 Day Ancient Ireland Tour travels south from the gateway city, Dublin, through County Wicklow (old Norse for “Vikings Meadow”) where many episodes of “Vikings” were shot. (This fully guided small group tour won a “best” award at the 2019 Irish Tourism Industry Awards.)
Guests may envision Vikings landing longboats off the Irish Sea and the flags of Norman invaders from England who, with help, eventually did them in. The artifacts they’ve left behind signal bloodshed one moment and repentance the next. More than any other region of Ireland, this coastline separated by mountains from inland valleys defines how the Irish came to be in the 5000 years since Stone Age settlements.
“A common view is the Vikings were raiders who didn’t stick around. But some did. As early as 800 AD they set up winter camps (longphorts) here, plotting how to loot the wealth of monasteries, intermarrying with indigenous Celtic Gael, putting down roots and founding our first capital at Waterford,” notes Rob Rankin, co-owner of Vagabond Tours. “The Vikings had a settlement in 841 AD in what is now Dublin. Then in the late 12th century, another predator, the Normans, thrust and parried the assorted kingdoms of Gaelic Ireland.”
The tour’s first major stop explores the site of a Viking attack on Christmas night in 835 AD on Glendalough, a 6th century monastic center. Farther south comes the Viking Triangle, the virtual museum cities of Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny. The Vikings founded Ireland’s first city, Waterford (Norse for “windy fjord”), in 914. Here one can visit museums and buildings rife with Viking lore. Participants on this trip have the option to:
- Tour the Viking Museum in Ireland’s oldest civic building, the 800-year- old Reginald’s Tower;
- Watch history come to life at the 3D King of the Vikings virtual reality experience.
- Step into a real 13th century chamber at the Medieval Museum,
- Behold the elegance of 18th century Georgian Waterford at the Bishop’s Palace Museum.
While in Waterford, now famous worldwide for its crystal stemware, guests revel in two nights of luxury – hardly Viking style — at Waterford Castle Hotel. (The castle became a hotel in the 1980s and underwent a major refurbishment in 2015.) Little Island, on which the castle stands, is strategically encircled by Kings Channel and River Suir. From the 6th century it housed a monastic center. From the 9th to 11th centuries the Vikings built fortifications on what was then called Island Vra (Dane’s Island). The early 12th century stone castle remained in the hands of its original owners, the Fitzgeralds (later kings of Ireland) for over 800 years. The island was a reward for the family’s role in the 1170 Norman invasion. (In Woodstown, just upstream from the castle, is relatively new evidence of a significant Viking settlement unearthed in the 21st century.)
At the mouth of another river the Vikings established in the 9th century a settlement they called Ueigsfjord or Waesfjord (“ford of the waterlogged island”), today’s Wexford. The Norse controlled this region until challenged, in part, by the Normans early in the 12th century. (In nearby New Ross guests may opt to visit the Ros Tapestry where 150 stitchers since 1998 have created 15 dramatic tapestries depicting Norman history in Ireland.)
In Kilkenny, the stronghold of a Norse clan since the 6th century, artifacts are buried deep. But in the 1990s a tour guide discovered silver and bronze treasures including buttons from a Viking coat.
In addition to Waterford Castle, other aristocratic homes and their gardens are players on this itinerary. Visitors will:
- Behold the splendor of 12th century Kilkenny Castle,
- Ramble the Robinsonian gardens of Altamount House,
- Dress for battle at the medieval Ballyhack Castle,
- Walk in awe around 13th century Tintern Abbey,
- Kiss the Blarney Stone and explore Blarney Castle and Gardens.
Departures (14 total in 2019) from Dublin are from mid-April through mid-October. The per person double rate is €1,819 (€315 single supplement).
On all of its tours, Vagabond staff curate locally owned accommodations, pubs and restaurants that help serve their goal of authenticity. In the end the mission is to have guests “love Ireland as much as we do.” Transport is in a custom 4×4 Mercedes ‘Vagatron’ that allows access beyond where regular tour buses go.