We meet costume designer Joan Bergin on the set of Vikings

She dressed our own First Lady, Bowie and has been on-set designer for everything from Vikings to The Tudors. Ahead of her appearance at the Fastnet Film Festival, Clodagh Finn watches Joan Bergin at work at Ashford Studios.

We meet costume designer Joan Bergin on the set of Vikings

TIME plays little tricks at Ashford Studios in Wicklow.

Not least on Emmy-winning costume designer Joan Bergin who is on the set of Vikings for the last time.

It’s not so much the fact she’s standing in a 9th-century wood-and-wattle village — though that is deeply evocative — but the realisation that she is finally packing up after a dizzying run that has taken her through four seasons of Vikings, four seasons of The Tudors in the nearby Ardmore Studios, one Riverdance, and Camelot.

“I started here one Monday and I’ve barely stopped in ten years,” she says.

Bergin is stepping down from Vikings after the fourth season — “this is my last Viking raid” — and is looking forward to some downtime after her next project, an MGM pilot called Dawn on Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals.

Costume designer Joan Bergin on the set of Vikings.
Costume designer Joan Bergin on the set of Vikings.

“The years just come galloping in,” says Bergin.

“I’m looking forward to easing down and doing 101 things, including extending my kitchen in Ranelagh. I need to clear out my life.”

Speaking of clearouts, rows and rows of costumes — glorious fur capes, leather-trimmed tunics, unexpectedly heavy chainmail, and beautiful gowns — are being packed away into boxes along with a spectacular array of beads, buttons, and pins that were fashioned into Viking jewellery during the highly successful series written by Michael Hirst.

A fifth season has just been given the green light.

After four seasons, it’s hard to pick out the highlights, but Bergin has a go anyway: “Five Viking ships sailed around the curve of Lough Dan [Wicklow] one beautiful spring morning and I burst into tears. It was so magnificent.

"The work, from stunts to boat builders, has been the most astonishing collaboration of Irish arts, crafts, and skills.”

Mention the incredible costumes that have brought a forgotten era to life and Bergin graciously mentions her colleagues — “the brightest and the best” — who helped her.

“I like the team spirit in costume design,” she says.

“The other day, we had the great heathen army attack the King of Wessex and we had 300 extras. Imagine dressing them. People were in from 4.30am doing hair and make-up.”

Then there’s those exquisite one-offs like the wedding gown worn by Princess Gisla for her marriage to Rollo.

It took three-and-a-half weeks to make and was honoured on-screen with one magnificent shot from the front, another from the back, and then it was gone.

“It was an astonishing dress,” says Bergin.

“It was my Viking homage to Chanel... the wedding dress at the end of the 2014 show. I bought fabric in India for Camelot that hadn’t been used and we handpainted a pattern in gold on it. [The few seconds on screen] were nearly worth it for that.”

Another of Bergin’s highlights was the fight-to-the-death scene between her old friend Gabriel Byrne (Earl Haraldson) and Travis Fimmel (Ragnar).

“I played opposite Gabriel Byrne once, which he never let me forget when he was in Vikings.”

Gabriel Byrne in Vikings
Gabriel Byrne in Vikings

In fact, Byrne’s character fell in love with Bergin when she played Natalya in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country at Dublin’s Focus Theatre in 1976.

She laughs at that now and recalls working with the likes of Tom Hickey, Olwen Fouéré, and her long-time friend Sabina Coyne who would go on to become Sabina Higgins, the Irish first lady.

In fact, Bergin had her “road to Damascus” moment during that Turgenev season, deciding against an acting career: “I realised that I would never be a great actress. I have a light speaking voice and I’m interested in too many other things. It was very liberating.”

She still collaborates with Sabina Higgins, though these days on wardrobe: During the historic State visit to the UK in 2014, Sabina wore a dress designed from an idea of Joan’s echoing the ‘shamrock dress’ worn by Queen Elizabeth in Dublin in 2011.

Bergin still gets the odd yen to act — “though it’s a very hard life” — but she is completely at home behind the camera where she has made a huge contribution to several films, including My Left Foot, Veronica Guerin, In the Name of the Father, and The Prestige.

Daniel Day Lewis, In The Name of The Father
Daniel Day Lewis, In The Name of The Father

The Christopher Nolan-directed The Prestige stands out because Bergin had one of those rare “amazing moments” during the shoot.

“I flew from LA to New York to meet David Bowie. He walked in looking like an out-of-work dancer from somewhere like the New York ballet.

"He was shy and quite nervous because the part was a big acting part. What I thought so extraordinary about him was the moment he came on set.

"If you want to know the real meaning of charisma, he had it. Everyone went quiet. He was a real star.”

And here’s the very special memory that will be with Bergin for ever: “David Bowie alighted from his carriage on top of a mountain outside of LA, grabbed the lapels of my coat, and said, ‘I love my costume.’ My knees started to shake. I was starstruck.”

Working on The Tudors was another highlight. It was great to dress Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) from “young pup to ageing king”.

“He was really terrific to work with and, of course, he’s an absolute clotheshorse. Over the series, we made about 1,500 costumes. All those clothes were made in Dublin.

"People assumed we had them made in London or in a big Paris house.”

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry and Sam Neill as Wolsey in The Tudors
Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry and Sam Neill as Wolsey in The Tudors

At least for The Tudors, history was kind enough to leave behind a vast portraiture to flesh out what was worn at Henry’s court. Not so with the Vikings.

Joan Bergin started season one, quite literally, with a blank canvas.

Yet she felt something of an affinity towards those Nordic people who have been caricatured as wild, plundering barbarians.

“I think with my colouring — and a name like Bergin — that I have always had at the back of my mind that maybe we are descended from the Vikings. That was my race of choice.”

She did extensive research, visiting museums in Stockholm and Norway and talking to Viking scholars.

She visited Dublin Museum, which has a number of artefacts from the famous Viking site at Woodquay, Dublin.

In fact, in 1979, Bergin marched with thousands of other protesters in a vain attempt to stop Dublin Corporation building the civic offices on an archaeological site of European importance: “It was the only march I’ve ever been on.”

What emerged from her research was a picture of a complex, democratic society that took great pride in their health and appearance.

“The single most interesting moment was when I came in with the research and showed the crew the designs, artefacts, and jewellery I had gathered.

"It was hands-on-hip time: ‘What are you talking about? That’s Celtic,’ they said. I said, ‘Sorry dears, that’s where we got it’.

“In fairness to us — and we weren’t told this at school — Dublin was a great slave capital so everything came through here: Slaves, fabric, furs, and jewellery.”

To make sure the costumes in Vikings were as authentic as possible — “ they can’t be Game of Thrones Vikings” — the team enlisted the help of a Swedish dye expert who showed them how to make natural dyes from Scandinavian berries.

“The Vikings were skilled weavers. They were the first to introduce the idea of the shaded panel in clothes.

"You might have blue-grey with a coral band in it. It’s very Scandinavian to this day.”

They were also far from unkempt barbarians.

“They would travel in the boats with a change of clothes.

“They had vanity sets — with items that did everything from trim the hair from your nose to shape your eyebrows.

“They were, in fact, so clean what when they came to Ireland the women used to rave at how gorgeous the men smelled.”

Bergin is now moving on to dispel another common myth — the false notion that the Neanderthals were backward and ugly.

“They were quite beautiful,” she says, showing an image of the Venus of Brassempouy, a tiny ivory figurine wearing a detailed beaded headdress that is said to be 24,000 years old.

“I was at a party and I saw this woman with great features. I thought to myself, you would make the most stunning Neanderthal but you can’t say that because of the belief that they were ugly.”

Joan Bergin will display some of her wardrobe at the 8th Fastnet Film Festival which takes place in Schull, Co Cork, from May 25-29.

She will be showing two costumes from The Tudors, two from Vikings, the famous Daniel Day-Lewis/Gerry Conlon coat from In the Name of the Father, and the outfit Meryl Streep — “she has more warmth in her little finger than many a person I’ve worked with” — wore when going to meet Michael Gambon in Dancing at Lughnasa.

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