Cave Story 5

The Massacre at Dunmore Cave


Dunmore Cave, in southeast Ireland, has a wealth of legends associated with its existence.  In ancient times, when it was called Dearc Fearna ("The Cave of the Alder Trees"), it was considered one of the three darkest places in all Ireland. It was said to be the home of the giant cat Luchthigern, the "lord of the mice" who ate quite a few before being killed by a woman warrior named Aithbel.

But the most tragic legend concerned some people who used the cave for shelter in the year 928 A.D. as a group of Vikings, led by Godfrey, attacked them. According to the tale, Godfrey's Vikings "demolished and plundered" Dearc Fearna and in the process killed 1,000 people. As with most legends, this one seems a bit impossible. The cave was never demolished; it still exists and is now open for tours. And no human remains had ever been discovered there--at least until 1973 when a group of archaeologists decided to examine the cave.

The cave itself is not large, a quarter of a mile long. Digging into three deposits of sediment, collected near the back of the cave, archaeologists soon made a number of intriguing finds: an amber ring, some beads, an iron axe head, a leather bag, 11 coins--and the bones of 44 people.

They wondered: could the legend of the Viking massacre be true? They knew, for example, that the area around the cave had held two ringforts. If the Vikings had attacked, they might have demolished the ringforts, rather than the cave, perhaps killing 1,000 people there.

As for the 44 individuals, they might have sought shelter inside the cave during the attack. An examination of the bones revealed that 25 were children; at least eight of the remainder were women. But were they the victims of the massacre?

The answer, archaeologists found, resided with the coins they found. Especially interesting were four that had been made in northeast England about 920 A.D. Godfrey had come to Ireland from York, in northeast England, shortly after that time. Were the dates on the coins simply a coincidence? Or did they provide evidence that the Vikings had attacked the ringforts at Dearc Fearna?

Vikings, the archaeologists concluded, had definitely been in Dunmore Cave.  First, they knew that the Vikings--not the Irish--used coins in the tenth century. Second, they carried them in a way that ensured they might be lost. Because they did not have clothing with pockets, they attached them with beeswax to the hair in their armpits.

The archaeologists believe that the women and children of Dearc Fearna sought refuge in the deepest part of the cave when the Vikings attacked--but were spotted running into the cave. At least some of the Vikings followed. What happened next is unclear. Because the bones of some men were also part of the discovery, archaeologists aren't sure if a few older men accompanied the women--or if the Vikings themselvesh were attacked, and a few killed, in the cave.

What is certain, however, is that the coins dangling from their armpits somehow became dislodged and rolled down the slope into the area were the 44 people were hiding. Archaeologists don't know how they died, but they can tell that they weren't slaughtered, for their bones do not show any cut marks or wounds from spear points. Rather, they speculate that the Vikings may simply have lit a fire to smoke them out and ended up suffocating them.

Today, visitors can tour Dunmore Cave and peer at the spot where some early people took shelter. A few of their bones are even on display in a small museum at the cave's entrance.


Copyright © James M. Deem. Taken from an unpublished manuscript by James M Deem. All rights reserved.