The Magnus Vikings Association based in Downpatrick are almost ready to open up their new period settlement close to the county town of Down which will add a significant educational dimension to understanding the Dark Ages and early Medieval periods in local history.
“So why ‘Vikings’?” I asked Philip Campbell, chairman of the Magnus Viking Association, a group that I have been actively involved with now for a number of years. The question gets absolutely no time to echo round his living room, the answer is there in a split second writes Helen Hastings.
“It was watching Kirk Douglas in ‘The Vikings’ film when I was a youngster,” he said with a nostalgic smile. “I was just smitten by the whole thing.” While Hollywood may sound like the stuff of dreams, Phil has spent most of the past twenty years making Viking life a reality here in Down.
The Magnus Vikings, a living history group that specialises in bringing Viking and medieval influences into the twenty first century, has gone from strength-to-strength and even has its very own festival –The Magnus Barelegs Festival – which runs bi-annually. Taking its name from a fearsome Norwegian Viking who put the fear of the Gods into the heart of County Down, the association has become more than just a hobby for some members. “Yes, It is definitely a way of life when you are involved in living history”, Phil added.
And that way of life is to become even more real for Philip and other living history enthusiasts with a medieval settlement being built on the outskirts of Downpatrick. The site which rests on the bank of Ballyduggan Lake with views of the Mourne mountains is a lot more than a typical tourist attraction. Comprising of a palisade wall and numerous Viking houses, it will allow for the public and living history buffs alike to be fully immersed in Viking life, even if it’s just for a few hours.
“The village is something of a labour of love for us and it hasn’t been an easy ride on our journey getting to where we are now. Modern materials would never have worked but I get a buzz from the fact that most of the materials used have been recycled. None of this would have been possible without my friends helping out and I regret that I’m not a bit younger to keep up with the physical side of things.” Phil had spent hours straightening out old nails on an anvil just so they could be used again. He jingled the bag. It was music to his ears.
Phil said: “The village which is set to open in the spring has had countless setbacks consistently coming up against the red tape of planning and health and safety. In fact this project has been seventeen years in the making… seventeen years of countless meetings and numerous form filling which often came to nothing. It has been a frustrating number of years. It’s hard to understand why a group of folks interested in living history seemed to pose such a challenge to the way things are just generally done. There’s never been anything quite like this in County Down… not in the past 900 years or so. People are often scared by things they just don’t understand and that are new to them. We have an excellent group of re-enactors with diverse skills who will be the backbone to this project.
“I remember a dark day in which a satirical cartoon appeared in a well-known Northern Ireland newspaper, making an obvious attack on our plans for the village. I was absolutely fuming when I saw the cartoon, and I rang to speak with the cartoonist, but he refused to come to the phone. Satirical maybe, but still a painful dig in the ribs for my long efforts and those of our volunteers.
“I persevered, however, and I knew in my heart-of-hearts that it was something people could benefit from so I kept going even though the longer it took, the more expensive it got with professional and administration costs mounting.” Leaving the issue on a forgiving note , Phil said: “I hope even the people who sent in letters of rejection to the planners will come down and enjoy it with their families.
“It wasn’t just the scary and hairy image of Viking warriors in longboats that had us all hooked on Viking life. Their way of life was just fascinating… from their religious beliefs, cooking, how they organised their homes, their trading habits, their tremendous drive to explore the world through the seas and rivers, and their prowess in battle. Vikings are portrayed as fearsome warriors who pillaged communities and set fire to monasteries, but people forget that they were up against the Irish clans who could be every bit as brutal.
“Living history has had an upsurge of interest in recent years thanks to shows like Game of Thrones and The Vikings on TV although I can’t make up my mind whether it’s a good thing or whether it has produced a new breed of people interested in the overall image rather than history. These shows act as a catalyst. A lot of shows, even the fantasy shows such as Game of Thrones, imitate history so when someone shows an interest they are saying in their own way that they are interested in living history, which is fine.
“Living history does exactly as it says on the tin. It gives concrete examples of survival and another way of life,” said Phil. “The public get a buzz from being immersed in the immediacy of a living history exhibit. We are at a disadvantage when we try and set up a village in more modern surroundings so the village will finally help create a fantastic atmosphere freed from modernity for people interested in history going back to the Dark Ages and Early Medieval period.
“And Downpatrick has its fair share of historical sites such as The Mound of Down, Ballynoe Stone Circle, Inch Abbey and the grave of Magnus Barelegs to name just a few. In fact the area of Downpatrick is a microcosm of the whole history of Ireland. As a member of the Magnus Viking Association and as a Downpatrick resident, I can’t help but agree that there is something very special almost enchanting about this area of County Down. And Magnus Barelegs himself was buried out past the line on Downpatrick railway.”
Phil was keen to get back to his work on the Viking settlement so I posed a final question to him… I often wonder what this world would look like if history did not exist and wasn’t taught in schools, so it’s a question I am eager to put to Philip and I’m not disappointed. He replied: “Children wouldn’t understand injustice and suffering, we would be looking at a very selfish society and there may not be the same respect for the older generation,” he added thoughtfully. “Education would be in a very poor state without history, as we would lose our identity and our sense of progression would be lost.”
It was a good answer and I’m left slightly chilled at Phil’s next comment “We may have to learn to adapt in the future to a very different world and who knows, maybe skills from the past will come in handy.”
“People ask me, why a Viking village?” Phil smiled. “I say come down when its finished and see people really enjoying themselves. That should answer your question better then.”
Well, one thing you cannot doubt is Phil’s steely determination to see his project through to the end. You have to admire this quality and I cannot help but think that I am gifted to be part of something special that is happening right here in our area. I am personally interested in the domestic and culinary aspects of Viking life, and may of my friends specialise in specific areas such as pottery, jewellery, working with animal skins and so on.
I know Phil Campbell’s enthusiasm rubs off on all the living history re-enactors in the Magnus Viking Association. We are approaching the final stages now at the end of a long journey, and thanks to Phil’s vision, future generations will enjoy the Viking experience right here in Downpatrick, near the County Town of Down.