Oh the Green and Red of Iceland!

Old Mayo

Pupils from Scoil Raifteirí, Castlebar at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar, to see the new exhibition “The Hoard and the Sword: Echoes of the Vikings in Mayo”. Photo: Keith Heneghan / Phocus.

Pupils from Scoil Raifteirí, Castlebar at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar, to see the new exhibition “The Hoard and the Sword: Echoes of the Vikings in Mayo”. Photo: Keith Heneghan / Phocus.

No sooner had Ireland’s impressive Euro 2016 campaign come to an end in sweltering Lyon, but I was looking for another bandwagon to hop on. Iceland’s plucky unbeaten run through the group stage had already caught my eye and after their deserved win against England on Monday night it was decided, the Nordic republic would have my full support.

Truthfully, my choice went beyond simply choosing the romantic underdog. Our two squads have similarities. Both have a finite pool of talent to choose from and, geographically, our largely rural North Atlantic islands are on the extremities of Europe and, as a consequence, are on the extremities also of UEFA and its rankings. But have the Irish and the Icelanders a stronger connection than mere coincidence?

Most lineages found today in contemporary Icelanders can be traced to the native populations in Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia. A massive 60 per cent of the Icelandic maternal gene pool is derived from the closely related inhabitants of Ireland and Scotland. In terms of Ireland, this influx into Iceland was mainly through native Irish serving Norse chiefs who travelled with their entourage from Norway, or, through Vikings that remained in Ireland following raids, intermarried and whose offspring subsequently journeyed to Iceland.

Evidence for the latter theory may have been found in Mayo. In 1939 a hoard of Viking silver bracelets and fragments dated to circa 915 AD was discovered at Cushalogurt on the shore of Clew Bay. The waterfront location strengthens the idea that the collection belonged to a Viking that was sailing along the coast with his expedition group. Further Viking evidence in Mayo was found in the River Moy near Foxford in 1963. A Scandinavian-made sword, again deposited along a waterway, belonged to a Viking warrior. The Coolcronaun sword, as it is known, was dated to circa 950 AD. A later Viking battle axe, dated circa 1000 AD, was also rescued from the River Robe in Ballinrobe.

That Vikings landed in Mayo and interacted, peacefully and violently, with the indigenous population cannot be in doubt, but it is difficult to determine if any Vikings settled in Mayo long-term. Evidence of possible Viking settlements have been identified on the Mullet peninsula and on the Inishkea Islands. Vikings did settle on Ireland's western seaboard, most notably in what became Limerick. Further north, near Clifden, the burial of a Viking warrior at Eyrephort points to a chain of Viking intrusions along the west coast. Archaeologists believe these intrusions took place during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. One would imagine that over three centuries of exploration and trade along the west coast, a portion of Vikings must have stayed or at least have left their progeny in Mayo.

Evidence of our Viking past can also be found in some of our common Irish surnames. Reynolds, Doyle and Higgins all have Norse or Viking roots. Mayo has a relatively high number of Viking-associated surnames when compared with other Atlantic counties.

The Cushalogurt Hoard and Coolcronaun sword are currently on display in the National Museum of Ireland, Turlough, as part of a new exhibition which investigates Viking contact with county Mayo.

This Sunday, Ireland and Iceland will be connected once again, this time through their meeting France in Euro 2016. I hope to be cheering on our 'cousins'  to another victory and the semi-finals.

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