This is the fourth article in my Irish History Week series.
The Battle of Clontarf, which occurred in a grassy field not far from Dublin on April 23, 1014, was certainly a turning point in Irish history. In this battle the great king Brian Boru defeated Máel Mórda mac Murchada, the King of Leinster, and his Norse (Viking) allies. It was a Pyhrric victory for him: Brian was himself killed in the battle. After the battle, foreign influence in Ireland declined abruptly. Brian was enshrined as something of a folk hero, the epic warrior-king who expelled the Vikings and saved Ireland.
The reality of Clontarf, as it true with most high points in medieval history, is a lot more complicated than that. It’s easy to assume that it was a pretty cut and dried match between Brian Boru and the Irish on one side, and the rapacious Viking invaders on the other. After some clanging of swords and the requisite bit with hails of arrows and boiling oil, Brian and the Irish emerged victorious and the Vikings sailed back to Scandinavia humiliated. It was far from that simple.
From the 980s to the early years of the 11th century, Brian Boru, originally of Munster, sought to unify the incredibly complex patchwork of kingdoms and fiefdoms in Ireland under one rule–his own. He was successful more in theory than in reality. Although Brian claimed the title “High King,” actually asserting his political authority in the far corners of the island was a much harder job. He did not shirk from using foreign mercenaries–the same Norsemen he would later defeat in 1014. The direct impetus for Clontarf was a revolt by Máel Mórda, the Leinster king who had overthrown the previous king who had acquiesced to Brian’s rule. Máel Mórda also used Viking allies, most notably Sigtrygg Silkbeard (you’ve got to love these medieval names!), a Viking who had managed to become the King of Dublin by marrying Brian Boru’s daughter.
Brian Boru is said to have been 88 at the time of his death. That’s pretty old to be leading troops onto the field of battle.
Got that straight? You can see already how tangled the relations were–the Irish kings were not only perfectly happy to accept the help of Viking warriors when it suited them, but they sought to curry favor with them by marrying them into their own families. The Battle of Clontarf was more of a family feud than an international conflict. In addition to Brian facing forces commanded by his own son-in-law, but Brian’s main enemy, Máel Mórda, was the son of his ex-wife, Gormflaith. If they had reality shows in 11th century Ireland, you can bet the Boru-Silkbeard-Murchada clan would have been top in the ratings.
It is true that the battle was pretty epic, and that the Vikings–whichever side they were on–were routed. However, the battle was a surprisingly civil affair, as far as medieval warfare went; there were breaks and truces throughout the day, agreed to by both sides, for exhausted warriors to rest. An almost cinematic coda to the battle occurred after its decisive phase, when King Brian retreated to his headquarters tent deep in the woods to pray on his victory. Brodir, a Danish Viking who was an ally of Máel Mórda, came upon the tent and killed Brian and several of his adjutants, then ran away into the forest. Brian’s surviving lieutenants caught up with Brodir and dealt him a gruesome revenge. One Irish saga records his death: “Wolf the Quarrelsome cut open [Brodir's] belly, and led him round and round the trunk of a tree, and so wound all his entrails out of him.” Appetizing.
In any event, although Clontarf was a major defeat for Norse (or Norse-allied) power in Ireland, it far from unified the island. In fact, in the years after 1014 the Irish kings resumed squabbling among themselves, as Viking influence drained away. Whether Clontarf really “expelled” the Vikings from Ireland is open to debate. By the early 11th century the glory days of Norse raiders and kings were largely over, and Scandinavian power was already declining in favor of the rising countries in western Europe, including England. Brian Boru may have caught the leading edge of a trend rather than dealing the Vikings a fatal shock in his own right.
Clontarf is today a picturesque seaside suburb of Dublin and has remained a thriving community for hundreds of years. Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, was born in Clontarf, and the town boasts many other famous residents over the years. The exact site of the battle is evidently unknown or unmarked. But here a page of Irish history was written, and the legend of Brian Boru remains strong.