On Good Friday, April 23, 1014, an epic battle waged near Dublin’s shores. A battle culminating the reign of a man considered by many to be the only true Ard Ri (High King) of Ireland – Brian Boru.
This struggle served a bittersweet victory. While King Brian’s forces came out victorious in the end, the Battle of Clontarf resulted in the death of many, including Brian himself.
Now, a millennium later, the Dublin City Council proposes to bring the Battle of Clontarf to life once again in the largest living history re-enactment ever produced in Ireland.
This is something I wish I could see. If ever there was a time to visit Ireland, it’s now!
For twelve years I’ve studied the life and times of Brian Boru. Investing so much in Ireland’s history has a way of affecting a person. I feel enriched for the things I’ve learned and want so much to find others to share in that passion.
However, those who know little to nothing about Ireland’s history, would fail to see the significance of some battle that took place a thousand years ago. So if I may, allow me to share a glimpse of this intriguing past with you.
Brian Boru otherwise known as Brian mac Cennétig (pronounced “Kennedy”), descended from the Dal Cais (Dal Cash) – a small, battle-hardened clan ruling in Thomond, now present day County Clare.
Dynastic struggles were the norm in ancient Ireland. You see, Ireland had many kings and petty kings ruling over its clans. Ideally, the hierarchy looked something like this:
- A high king (Ard Ri) ruled over all Ireland
- Provincial kings ruled each of the 5 provinces beneath him.
- Petty kings ruled each of the tuaths (patrimonial lands under the control of dominant clans) within those provinces.
- Chieftains (still known as kings but later degraded to the term “lords”) served as the leader of each clan.
In reality, the provincial kings of Meath, Ulster, Connacht, Munster and Leinster were the major players. All other kings fought and vied for those provincial seats. Meath, however, carried with it the symbolic title of the high kingship because of its reputation and association with Tara – the ancient seat of Ireland’s high kings.
In the mindset of all Irish, attaining the high kingship was the ultimate symbol of power and authority.
By the 10th century, Munster proved to be the unlikely fostering place for that claimant. Brian Boru’s father, Cennétig mac Lorcan, had for years, engaged in conflicts with neighboring Danes and even on occasion, Munster’s provincial king. Thomond was one of Munster’s northernmost tuaths, and the Dal Cais were considered insignificant compared to the Eoghanacht (Owenacht) clans who had ruled over Munster for centuries.
But the Eoghanachts were weakening. Not long after Cennétig’s death, Brian’s brother, Mahon, took over as king of the Dal Cais. Wearied by war, Mahon arranged a peace between the Dal Cais and the Danes of Limerick, who were also instrumental in Munster’s dynastic struggles.
Brian despised Mahon’s decision, and so formed his own war band, using guerrilla tactics to continue his fight against the Danes encroaching on their clan’s land. This garnered Brian fame in Munster. Eventually, his fame served to light a fire under Mahon and he lead the Dal Cais to take Munster’s provincial seat in Cashel from the Eoghanachts – unopposed.
This bold move earned Mahon enemies and he was eventually assassinated.
Brian took over his brother’s kingship in 976, proving an unmatchable foe to his opposition in Munster. By the year 1002, Munster and most of fractious Ireland fell to his rule. Brian then set out to make the ceremonial title of High King a reality. He succeeded.
Then came Clontarf.
Now, much of Brian’s reign was marked by the hype of him single-highhandedly driving out the Viking threat in Ireland. This was never the case.
Yes, Brian and the Dal Cais fought against their Scandinavian counterparts on many occasions. The Danes and Norse were fully integrated in Irish society by the 10th century and integral to Ireland’s growth – scientifically and economically. They were just as fractious as the Irish and just as heavily involved in Ireland’s continuous power struggles.
Yet, Brian was an excellent political and military mind. So many of the Danes and Norse he formally fought, soon became his allies. These allies fought alongside him at Clontarf.
So much for the Viking versus Irish theory.
The Battle of Clontarf essentially was another struggle for sovereignty in Ireland. The province of Leinster revolted against Brian’s rule. Its king, Máel Mórda, was Brian’s former brother in-law. Loyalty between them was never strong. After Brian divorced Máel Mórda’s sister, Gormflaith, events snowballed until Leinster and Dublin formed armies in opposition to the high kingship.
Dublin was ruled by the Norse king, Sitric Silkbeard. That fact made this web all the more twisted. Sitric was Gormflaith’s son (from a previous marriage) and Brian Boru’s son in-law.
Talk about your family feud!
Sitric, Gormflaith, and Máel Mórda, actively engaged in collecting forces against Brian. Sitric visited Earl Sigurd of the Orkneys, who agreed to have his fleet in Dublin on Palm Sunday. Sitric then traveled to the Isle of Man and gained support from two notorious Viking leaders, brothers Brodar and Ospak, sons of the King of Lochlann and all northern Saxon lands. All 2000 of their troops were said to have triple-plated armor made of refined iron or cool noncorroding brass, which encased their bodies from head to foot.
Impressive for the period.
A conflict arose between Ospak and Brodar, however. So Ospak took 10 Viking ships, leaving his brother with 20, and sailed to Kincora to join Brian Boru.
Take that, Leinster allies!
Warned of his enemies’ preparations, King Brian readied himself for battle. By spring on March 17th, Brian organized the provincial troops of Munster, Connacht and Meath, against Dublin and the King of Leinster. He did a little plundering along the way to draw attention to himself, while dispatching his youngest son, Donough, and Munster’s third battalion, to plunder Leinster, which lay unprotected since most of its war bands had followed their king to Dublin.
A nice diversion.
Seeing their lands pillaged, the troops in Dublin’s city sallied in battle array.
Encamped on the Plain (or Green) of Dublin – Magh-nEalta Plain, Brian held a war council with his principle chieftains. They decided to risk a general engagement on the following morning.
Battle was joined near the salmon fishing weir of Clontarf. The forces were nearly equal in balance and engaged in a dogged struggle that lasted almost the entire day. Some accounts say the battle opened with several personal taunts between men on the opposing lines, often ending with the two marching out into the middle of the field to enter personal combat, while the forces on either side cheered.
It escalated from there.
All Irish accounts agree that Brian’s forces advanced on the battlefield in three divisions against their enemies, who arranged in similar formation. Njal’s Saga confirms the Irish accounts. It tells us that Brodar and Sitric of Dublin commanded the wings and Earl Sigurd the center of the Danish army.
According to the Leabhar Oiris, the Dalcassian battalion marched under the command of Murrough, King Brian’s son. They were pitted against the mail-clad Norsemen. The second battalion, opposing Leinster and one Danish squadron, was under the command of Brian’s son in-law, Cian mac Mael Muadh. The third battalion, composed of the Connacht tribes, fought under Tadhg O’Connor of Connacht and O’Kelly of Ui Maine. These opposed the Dublin Danes.
At first the battle favored Brodar’s forces – their heavier weapons prevailing over the Dal Cais. Thanks to Brian’s Viking mercenaries, Ireland’s high king was able to utilize his own advantage in this regard and slowly pushed their opposition back. By afternoon, Brodar’s forces began fleeing to their long-ships.
Meanwhile, both Sigurd’s and Máel Mórda’s forces hammered Munster’s ranks at the center. Then Sigurd came to a swift death and by the day’s end, his forces found themselves with both flanks failing and exhausted.
Dublin’s ranks decided to flee to the city.
In 1014, the Viking city of Dublin was confined to the south bank of the River Liffey and was connected to the north bank, and Clontarf, by a single bridge – Dubhgall’s Bridge. Brian’s ally, Malachy II, who through a quarrel abandoned Brian prior to the battle, had a change of heart and decided to re-enter the fray.
A man of means, who formerly held the title of High King, Malachy II lead Meath’s forces in pursuit of those from Dublin. Effectively cutting them off from the bridge and the battlefield, Malachy II routed the enemy ranks. Prevented from taking refuge in Dublin, Leinster’s allies were forced to the sea.
The receding tide carried their ships out of reach and many drowned.
Sitric Silkbeard never actually joined in the fighting. Instead, he and his wife (Brian’s daughter) watched the conflict from Dublin’s battlements.
When Brian’s daughter observed the Dane’s retreat, she mocked her husband by saying, “It seems to me that the foreigners have gained their patrimony.”
“What meanest thou, woman?” Sitric asked.
“Are they not rushing into the sea, which is their natural inheritance?” She replied. “I wonder, are they in heat like cattle; if so, they tarry not to be milked?”
Like father like daughter. Brian would have been proud.
Sitric, lost it and gave her a blow, knocking out one of her teeth.
Under the protection of a shield-burg thrown up around him, King Brian spent the battle engaged in prayer within the privacy of his tent. It was said he would not fight on a fast day.
Norsemen fleeing the scene of battle, broke through the shield-burg and killed Brian. Some accounts say Brodar lead this party and slew Brian with an ax. After discovering Brian Boru slain, the Irish, in a fit of rage, disemboweled Brian’s killers and hung their innards and corpses in a tree for the crows to feast upon.
Clontarf had a heavy casualty list.
Some 4,000 men were killed on Brian’s side and roughly 7,000 from Leinster and its allies. Three of Brian Boru’s sons, Murrough, Connor, and Flann, were slain.
Murrough had taken his fifteen year old son, Turlough, into the fray with him. It was said that Turlough followed the enemy into the sea where a tidal wave caught him. The wave smashed him and the Danes he fought against the salmon weir of Clontarf, drowning them.
This is how the battle gained its name – Cath Coradh Claunatarbh, “The Battle of the Weir of Clontarf”.
The men of Munster remained on the Green of Dublin for the next two days waiting for Brian’s son Donough, to return from his plundering. Donough arrived at the hour of Vespers on Easter Sunday. He had 28 oxen with him, which he immediately had slaughtered there upon the field.
Sitric, having learned of this, sent a messenger to demand a share in the oxen or he would attack the shattered Dalcassian troops with his fresh Dublin garrison.
Donough sent a haughty refusal back. Sitric, being the coward that he was, didn’t follow through with his threat.
The Monday after Easter was spent burying the dead. Later, Brian Boru’s body was carried to Armagh. They waked his body for twelve nights before burial – an honor given previously to one other man – Saint Patrick.