The Battle of Clontarf

Author: Gerry McGeough
Issue: 21 – January 2008

The Battle of Clontarf
Fought on Good Friday, April 23rd, 1014 Clontarf has acquired almost legendary status in the annals of Irish history.

In recent centuries, it has been portrayed as the defining moment when the Christian Irish, under their High King Brian Boru, finally defeated the pagan Viking horde that had terrorised Ireland since the late eighth century.

In reality, Viking power had been effectively broken by the mid-990s and the bulk of the ethnically mixed Hiberno-Norse had been at least nominally Christian for generations. Nevertheless, there is an element of truth in the romanticised version given that several pagan chieftains from around the Viking world aspired to re-colonise parts of Ireland and carve out sword-land for themselves just as some of their contemporaries were about to do in England.

Nowadays, it�s popular to view the Vikings as lovable rogues who engaged in the odd bit of plunder when not ploughing the high seas in their long-boats. This image is far removed from reality. Aside from piracy and ruthless slave trading (Dublin, one of their main centres, was a huge slave emporium holding up to a thousand slaves awaiting transportation at any given time) the Vikings were driven by a satanic hatred of Christianity, which led them to focus much of their fury on the rich Christian culture of first millennium Ireland.
So brutal was their impact on this country from the 790s onward that they gave rise to a medical condition that remains with us to this day. The so-called �Celtic gene� first appeared around the eighth century and may have been triggered by the mass stress induced by the heathen onslaught.

Affecting the body�s ability to absorb iron at certain stages, it is most prevalent in Ireland and in those countries around the world where the Irish Diaspora is to be found. It is also common in Denmark and southern Sweden where vast numbers of Irish slaves would have ended up over a thousand years ago.

Despite having sailed large fleets into Lough Neagh, from whence they sacked Monastic centres at Armagh and Ardboe, the Vikings appear to have met stiff, consistent and organised resistance in the North of Ireland from the very beginning, which explains the lack of Norse settlements in that region of the country, a fact that would have long-term historic impact vis-a vis the lack of towns there in later centuries.

Elsewhere, the Vikings succeeded in establishing permanent settlements in Dublin, Waterford and Limerick, thus affecting the local geo-political situations. Limerick is of particular significance in that resistance to the excesses of its Vikings led to the emergence of a minor East Clare dynasty, the Dal Cais, as a force to be reckoned with in north Munster.

Brian mac Cenneidigh was to become the most famous scion of the Dal Cais. Born the youngest of twelve sons around 941 A.D., Brian led a continuous struggle against the Vikings, once executing 3,000 of them in revenge for the enslavement of Irish children.

He succeeded his brother Mahon as provincial king in 976 and began his steady rise to become the overall ruler of Ireland. Along the way Brian dispensed with the customary niceties that prevented tribes like his from being eligible for the High Kingship by simply describing himself as the �Emperor of the Irish�.

Through military victories and shrewd political alliances, Brian had become de facto High King by 1002. He introduced the surname system to Ireland years ahead of other European countries and brought reforms that gave Ireland the potential to become a powerful island nation. A defender of the Catholic Faith and promoter of culture and learning he built up vast libraries for the benefit of Irish scholars. A new Golden Age for Ireland was about to dawn, but the Viking menace remained.

Brian�s success drew the envy of other Irish leaders and aroused a blood lust ambition to depose him among some of the less savoury elements in the Viking world. A combination of these elements led to the famous battle at Clontarf along the beaches just north of Dublin�s River Liffey.

The Icelandic and other Nordic sagas go into considerable detail about Clontarf and reveal a glimpse of the pre-conflict hysteria that erupted across the Viking world. Blood curdling visions and spine chilling dreams were very much the order of the day, with hags in the Orkney Isles conjuring up images of looms weighed with men�s skulls portending, not surprisingly, bad omens.

Viking warriors invoked the great demonic �gods� of Thor and Woden, while their shamans invested their black raven banners and other standards with �magical� qualities.

Things were hardly much jollier on the Irish side where visionaries were working themselves into a state with tales of Bean S� and vampires howling through the deep forests of the night.

No conflict in Ireland would be complete without its traitors. There were Vikings in Brian�s army and more than a few Irishmen aligned with the Norse, while even more elected to stand idly by.
Among these were a significant portion of the Dublin Vikings under Sigtrygg Silkbeard. Sigtrygg�s Irish mother Gormlaith, a problematic individual who also happened to be Brian�s estranged wife, had done much to encourage the battle. She resented Brian Boru�s hegemony over her brother, M�el M�rda mac Murchada, king of Leinster and had invited Sigurd Lodvesson, the Earl of Orkney, to usurp Brian. Brodir from the Isle of Man was also included in the assault.
The Vikings forced the battle on Good Friday, believing that the Catholic Irish would be reluctant to fight on that day. Berserkers, probably high on mead and magic mushrooms, were normally sent out first in order to get the fight started. This done, both sides weighed into each other over the course of the day. Brian, by now an old man, prayed in his tent surrounded by his personal body guard.
The battle ebbed and flowed all day, but by evening the Viking forces began to break and swarms of warriors fled the battlefield and sought to swim to their ships. The change in tide however meant that many of them drowned in the attempt.

Eager to see some action before the end, Brian�s bodyguard broke the shield wall around their King�s tent and chased after fleeing Vikings. Witnessing this Brodir, leader of the Manx Vikings, seized the opportunity and charged the undefended tent. Entering it he found the elderly Brian praying before the altar and slew him where he knelt. Yelling of this accomplishment he ran from the scene but was cut down by Irish warriors before he could reach his ship.
Clontarf was a bitter-sweet victory for the Irish. Viking power in the country had been broken for good, but Brian Boru and most of his sons had fallen in the battle. Had we had two more kings of Brian�s stature to follow after him, Irish history might well have been much different. As it was, without a powerful figure like him to rule, the Irish fell back into the old ways of disunity and, a century and a half later, proved easy prey for the invading Anglo-Normans, whose English crown rule remains a problem to this very day.


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