Northern Ireland news

Vikings brought leprosy to Ireland, Belfast university research suggests

Three of the individuals were from a cemetery in Dublin

VIKINGS brought leprosy to Ireland, research led by Queen's University Belfast suggests.

The finding is regarded as significant as little is known about the disease in medieval Ireland.

It was common in Dublin in medieval times and in the 14th century a leper hospital was built near St Stephen's Green.

Funded by the British Academy, the study focused on five cases of probable leprosy identified in human skeletal remains excavated from burials.

Three individuals came from a cemetery in Dublin and one each from Co Kildare and St Patrick's Church in Armoy, Co Antrim.

Queen's researchers collaborated with academics from the University of Surrey and University of Southampton.

Genetic investigations, known as genotyping, were carried out on leprosy bacterium strains.

These strains, which were dated from the early 10th century through to the 13th century, revealed the individuals had been affected by two different strains of leprosy. One had probable origins in Scandinavia, while the other first developed in the Middle East.

The Dublin skeletons were also chemically examined to determine where the individuals had spent their early years. None appeared to have been local to Dublin and, while one may have been British or from the north of Ireland, the remaining two grew up in Scandinavia.

The Vikings arrived in Dublin in the year 840. In their study, the team proposed "that the Vikings were responsible for introducing leprosy to Ireland".

Professor Eileen Murphy, from the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen's said the findings had potential to provide interesting insights about the historical origin of the disease.

"Ireland is of particular interest in the history of leprosy as it was never part of the Roman world nor underwent any significant occupation by later Anglo-Saxon settlers," she said.

"This study has revealed that despite its location on the western extremity of Europe, Ireland and, certainly, Dublin was not isolated from the rest of the world during medieval times. Multiple strands of archaeological evidence indicate it was a vibrant port town throughout this era, a situation that brought the benefits of wealth but also facilitated the spread of infectious diseases.

"This work adds to our knowledge of the likely origins of leprosy in medieval Ireland and will hopefully stimulate further research into the history and spread of this ancient disease across the world."

In 2007, a man living in Co Armagh was diagnosed with the disease. It is believed that he contracted it when living in Indonesia.

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