Dunmore cave, Co Kilkenny is pretty unique. Aside from its impressive geological features, it is one of the few places in Ireland where archaeology and history match up perfectly shedding light on a particularly dark chapter in the caves history.
Deep in a dark recess of Dunmore cave the discovery of human remains and viking coins verify a grim entry from the Annals of the Four Masters about a massacre in 930. This discovery gives a terrifyingly vivid insight into early medieval ireland, often difficult since much of the landscape has changed so much.
In episode three of the podcast I referenced an event that took place in 930 C.E. The entry in the Annals of the four Masters for that year records*
Godfrey, grandson of Imhar, with the foreigners of Ath-cliath, demolished and plundered Dearc Fearna, where one thousand persons were killed in this year, as is stated in this quatrain:
Nine hundred years without sorrow, twenty-eight, it has been proved,
Since Christ came to our relief, to the plundering of Dearc-Fearna.
(Dearc Fearna is a reference to Dunmore cave co Kilkenny then in the kingdom of Ossory which was was frequently attacked in the period after the Vikings returned to Waterford in 914. The cave was presumably used by local people as a refuge from attacks.)
This story in itself is not that unusual. The annals are littered with similar stories of attacks and massacres but this one is different because you can literally stand on the same stones where the people perished in 930. In the 1970’s the exact spot was located when Viking coins were found along with human remains in a dark recess far at the back of the cave known as the market cross chamber.
In the area to pictured to the right, the market cross chamber, Viking coins were found all dating between 860 and 930. Crucially none were minted after the cut off point of 930 when the event took place. Indeed they all (except two) come from the Northern England in the 920’s from locations associated with the Vikings. Two others which are a few decades older are from Armenia – a fascinating story in itself illustrating the reach of the Viking trading routes. This was a good indication that the story in the Annals of the Four master was true and that the coins were deposited by the attackers. Indeed its highly unusual from archaeological data to fit so well with a historical event. However further information was available from other discoveries.
In a more macabre twist the remains of dozens of bodies of women chidlren and some men have also been found. Although they could not be precisely dated the radiocarbon tests put them within a time-frame that included the crucial year of 930 and in similar archaeological contexts to the Viking coins. The victims strangely did not include scars of battle and stab marks what you might expect in a massacre. However when you stand in the area known as the Market cross chamber (above) you realise why they may not have such wounds.
When the tour reached the chamber the guide turned out the light after which it was impossible to even see the person directly beside you. This gives the visitor some idea of visibilty 1100 years ago. Even with the aid of a burning torch its almost certain that the Vikings could not have found people hiding in the cave. What is far more lightly is that after stumbling around in the dark and losing a few coins the Vikings decided they would starve or possible smoke those hiding in the cave out. It seems fear drove those hiding to choose death rather than submit to the Vikings.
1100 years later
When you climb the hundreds of steps down into the cave today along pathways you get some idea what it must have been like for the people hiding from the Vikings as they stumbled in the dark over rocks to one of the hardest parts of the cave to access. Although now the cave is paved and is lit its still quite strange standing in a spot where events in the Annals of the four masters took place when so many of the places mentioned are now lost or built over. Dunmore cave is definitely worth a visit just to see this alone. For more details check out the website.
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section B: Biological, Geological, and Chemical Science, Vol. 80B, (1980), pp. 1-23
(the AFM records the year as 928 but it is 2 years out for much the early tenth century)