By Catherine Swift
Lecture given at Waterford, Ireland, on October 21, 2004
Introduction: The aim of this paper is to look at one possible impact of Woodstown on our understanding of Irish history. The limited excavation of the site to date has produced a great deal of evidence for trade; large quantities of hack silver and lead weights which appear to be of the type used by merchants to weigh up silver when negotiating with other traders. There is also a large number of ship nails, implying that the people who lived in the settlement were either building ships on site or at the very least, had enough ships at their disposal that they were able to cannabalise old ships to build their houses. On Frances Shanahan’s RTE programme on Monday 18th October, we learnt that analysis of the finds by Dr John Sheahan of UCC suggest a dating range for this silverwork from the 840s to the 880s. If the site is as rich as it appears from the limited information available, it surely must have made an impact on the surrounding communities. The purpose of this paper is make a suggestion about that impact which, while it primarily affected the south-east, may also have had national consequences.
One of the earliest records which we have of the Deisi, the native kingdom in which Viking Woodstown were constructed, is their origin legend; the story which they themselves told of how they came to settle in the south-east of the country. It has come down to us in a version which was written down in the late-eight-century, immediately before the Vikings first attacked Ireland.
According to this story, entitled Tairrired na nDesse or ‘The journeying of the Deisi’, the Deisi originally lived around Tara. One day, the son of the high king of Tara abducted a princess of the Deisi and made her his wife. Her uncle Oengus, furious that the family had not been consulted, suffered a riatrad catha or battle fury – something Deisi men have been known to suffer on sports fields to the present day. Under this battle fury, Oengus ran a spear through the would-be husband, killing him outright and also taking out the eye of the high king, Cormac mac Airt himself.