Sunday, 6 April 2014
What is the legacy of Brian Boru and
the Battle of Clontarf after 1,000 years?
The date 1014 has the same place in Irish memories as 1066 in England, 1776 in the United States, 1789 in France or 1917 in Russia, so that the Battle of Clontarf holds as many inherited memories as Hastings in England, Bannockburn in Scotland, Bunker Hill in America, or the Bastille in France.
The events planned to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf and the death of Brian Boru on Good Friday 1014, include battle re-enactments, exhibitions, lectures and tours. The National Museum of Ireland has an exhibition on the Viking Age in Ireland, the O’Brien Clan is holding a major family reunion in Co Clare, an O’Brien banquet is being hosted in Dublin Castle on 23 April, and there is an ecumenical service that morning in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
Other events include a two-day conference in Trinity College Dublin, a three-day conference in Cashel, a lecture series in Dublin City Hall, and a public recital on the ‘Brian Boru Harp.’ There are new books on the Battle of Clontarf by Dr Seán Duffy of TCD and Darren McGettigan, and a special edition of History Ireland.
Separately, a new exhibition in the British Museum, London, is offering a revaluation of the Vikings and their contribution to civilisation on these islands.
Asking some questions
The Battle of Clontarf is often presented as a victory of Gaelic Irish forces over the Vikings, who are pilloried as uncivilised plunderers. Yet fundamental questions must be asked. Have the inherited memories of Clontarf and 1014 distorted facts and perpetuated myths?
The battle is seen as a great victory for the Christian king of Ireland, Brian Boru, who defeated the pagan Vikings and drove them out of Ireland. But this was not a battle between the Irish and the Vikings. Gaelic Irish forces fought alongside the Vikings, the supposedly victorious Brian was slain at the end of the day, and he was buried neither in Clontarf nor in his native Killaloe, but far further north in Armagh.
Even the main battle scenes are not concentrated in Clontarf, but spread across a vast swathe of Dublin, from Kilmainham, through Oxmantown, Phibsboro and Glasnevin to Drumcondra, Ballybough, Fairview and Clontarf.
The Viking arrival in Ireland
The first Viking raids on Ireland were in 795. Viking fleets soon appeared on the major rivers, and they fortified bases for more extensive raids. The principal targets of the raiders were the monasteries, where they plundered gold, silver, chalices, crosses and manuscripts, captured slaves and pillaged the harvests.
Gradually, the Vikings established settlements and engaged in trade and commerce, with towns in Limerick (812), Dublin (841), Wexford (800 or 888), Waterford (914), and Cork (915/922).
Irish society was still overwhelmingly rural, with a mixed farming economy. But the Vikings opened new trade routes into the rich markets of the Byzantine empire and Muslim central and western Asia. The range of personal ornaments found in the Christchurch Place area of Dublin reflects the wealth and trade contacts of the city’s Vikings.
By the end of the 10th Century, the Vikings in Ireland had adopted Christianity and it is difficult to distinguish between Viking and Irish artefacts. The culture of the Viking-founded towns and cities in the 11th and early 12th centuries is often described as Hiberno-Norse.
However, there was significant opposition to their presence in Ireland, not least in Munster where King Brian Boru had defeated their armies on several occasions. Brian’s aim was to unite all the warring Celtic kingdoms, with himself as the High King.
Who was Brian Boru?
Brian Boru rose from modest beginnings to become King of Ireland. His nickname Boru may come from the Old Irish bóruma, “of cattle tribute,” or “of Bél Bóraime,” a ringfort at Killaloe, Co Clare, where he had his royal residence.
Despite the pious Irish portrayals of him as an ageing saint praying privately in his tent, Brian was a single-minded and vengeful warlord. He had at least four wives and two or three concubines – more partners than Henry VIII – yet had his own sister executed for adultery.
Brian was born about 941, near Killaloe, into the upwardly mobile petty royal family of Dál Cais. By 967, Brian’s older brother Mathgamain was King of Cashel or Munster, the first King of Munster in five centuries who did not belong to the great Eóganachta tribe, ancestors of the MacCarthy, O’Sullivan, O’Callaghan, O’Mahony, O’Donoghue and other families.
Mathgamain took control of the Norse city in Limerick in 967. However, the Norse of Limerick were instrumental in his downfall and murder in 976. Brian avenged his brother’s death, attacking Limerick and killing its king, Ívarr.
When the Dál Cais and the Eóganachta fought for the kingship of Munster in 978, Brian emerged victorious. By 982, he was seeking to extend his rule beyond the borders of Munster, challenging the King of Tara and High King of Ireland, Máel Sechnaill II of the O’Neill Clan.
By the 990s, Brian’s fleets and forces were raiding southern Ulster, he subdued Leinster and gained control of the southern half of Ireland, and in 997, Brian and Máel Sechnaill agreed to divide Ireland between them.
Late in 999, Brian marched on Dublin and banished King Sitric Silkenbeard, his Viking son-in-law. He then tore up his treaty with Máel Sechnaill, forced the submission of the High King and marched north to demand the submission of the northern leaders.
In 1005, he arrived in Armagh, where he had insertion inscribed in the ninth century Book of Armagh, with its narratives of Saint Patrick, describing himself as “Brian, Emperor of the Irish (imperatoris Scotorum).” Now in his 70s, Brian forced the O’Neills of Ulster to submit before returning in triumph to Kincora, his royal residence at Killaloe.
But Brian’s extended power soon began to crumble, and King Sitric of Dublin and King Máelmórda of Leinster rebelled in 1013.
The Battle of Clontarf
In a bid to force Dublin and Leinster to submit, Brian marched on Dublin with 4,900 troops, made up of 2,000 Munster men, 1,400 Dalcassians, and 1,500 Connacht clansmen. He was opposed by Mael Mordha’s army of 4,000 Leinster men and 3,000 Vikings led the King Sitric of Dublin. The Dublin and Leinster armies rallied first at Howth and were reinforced by troops from the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and the Orkneys.
Battle began at first light on Good Friday, 23 April 1014, and raged all day. Although only a small segment of the battle was fought near the seafront at Clontarf, it is known as the Battle of Clontarf because some 2,000 Vikings had sailed out from Dublin in longboats at sunrise and landed at Clontarf that morning.
The Vikings and the Leinster men lined up across the sloping plains bounded by the sea and the River Tolka. Brian’s army occupied the rising ground near Tomar’s Wood in Phibsboro. But as the tide receded, it took the Scandinavian boats with it and scattered them about the bay.
The main battlefield was in Glasnevin and Phibsboro, at Cross Guns and on the banks of the River Tolka. One centre of battle, the “Bloody Acre,” is within the bounds of Glasnevin Cemetery. The most ferocious fighting was at the Battle of the Fishing Weir, probably the site of the former DWD Whiskey Distillery on Richmond Road, Drumcondra.
It was the bloodiest day in Ireland for centuries: 4,000 of Brian’s troops lay dead on the battlefield, and 6,000 Leinster men and Vikings were slaughtered, including every single Viking leader.
The battle scene
Clontarf is not mentioned in the early annals. The earliest certain reference in the 12th century Book of Leinster refers to “the Battle of Clontarf Weir.” The weir may have been a fishtrap on the tidal shoreline between Clontarf and Clontarf Island, which survived until the 19th century and now forms part of Fairview Park.
On the modern landscape, Seán Duffy imagines the defeated forces at the old heart of Clontarf, between Castle Avenue and Seaview Avenue and Stiles Road. From there, they were pushed downhill towards the sea.
To escape, they had to cross what is now Fairview Strand, but it was submerged by the incoming tide. In the other direction, a wooded area to the east of Vernon Avenue offered them protection, but that route was blocked too by the inundation of the area around Oulton Road and Belgrove Road.
They had no option but to stand with their backs to the sea and fight. As they were beaten back towards the sea at Clontarf, they found the tide had carried away their ships. There they were drowned in great numbers and “lay in heaps and in hundreds.”
To the west, as Brian’s enemies fled, they were slaughtered too. The last 20 fleeing Dubliners were killed at Dubgall’s Bridge, named perhaps after Dubgall mac Amlaíb, brother of King Sitric, who remained inside Dublin that day to defend the city. The bridge may have crossed the Liffey near the present Four Courts, or crossed the Tolka at Ballybough.
Brian took no part in the battle. Instead, he pitched camp on a green area west of Dublin, either in Kilmainham or near Cross Guns. Although this was his greatest victory, he did not live to enjoy it. At the hour of victory, as he knelt praying in his tent, the fleeing Viking leader from the Isle of Man, Brodir, was hiding in the woods nearby. Brodir stole into Brian’s tent and killed Brian with his axe before he too was captured and was ritually disembowelled.
After the battle, the bodies of Brian and his son Murchad were brought ceremoniously first to Swords and then to Armagh, where they were waked for twelve nights before being buried in a new tomb.
Brian Bóru’s final victory was Pyrrhic – indeed, the Welsh annals and Viking sagas present it as a defeat for Brian and a victory for Sitric. His death brought to an end his claims to the title of High King of Ireland and plans for Irish unity. Máel Sechnaill recovered his throne and the O’Brien dynasty only held the crown intermittently afterwards. By the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion a century and a half later, Rory O’Connor was High King.
After the battle, a period of relative peace followed in which Celtic chieftains and Vikings lived in relative harmony in Ireland.
But while Clontarf may have averted a major new Viking offensive in Ireland, the Danish King Knut and his family took control of England successfully in 1013-1017. Dublin triumphed as a Viking city, Dublin became a diocese in 1028 with Christ Church as its cathedral, and Sitric reigned unchallenged until his abdication in 1036.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and vthese photographs were first published in April 2013 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).