A thousand years ago, on April 23, 1014, the Battle of Clontarf, and Brían Boru’s last costly victory, changed Irish political life forever. The following, from The Story of the Irish Race by Seumas MacManus, sets the scene in Ireland prior to the battle.
Irish literature of a thousand years ago is obsessed with the occupation of Ireland by the Norse (also referred to as the Danes), and, if we are to believe the native annalists, a night of misery had really settled down on the country with the coming of the Vikings. On the occasion of a raid, villages were burned and sacked and there was wholesale slaughter and enslavement of men, women and children. A tax was laid upon all the people. In default of paying the tax, “nose-money” (a custom which they brought from their own country), that is, the loss of the nose, was exacted. In the words of one of the old chroniclers, “even though a man had but one cow, he might not milk it for a child one night old, nor for a sick person, but he had to keep it for the tax collector and the foreign soldiers.”
The most famous hero of this period in Ireland and one of the most famous in all Irish history was the celebrated Brían Mac Cennéidigh, son of Kennedy, king of the Dalcassians, and chief of Thomond, including the eastern portion of the present county of Clare, and hereditary ruler of North Munster.
Born around 941 in Kincora, he is known to history as Brían Boru, which he took from the name of the town of Bórime, near Killaloe, on the right bank of the Shannon.
Brían was the youngest of twelve brothers, all of whom fell in battle except two: Marcian, who was head of the clergy of Munster, and Anlúan who died of a severe illness.
Brían’s eldest brother Mathghamhain (Mahon) succeeded his father, and in 968 became king of Munster. Mahon was engaged almost constantly in war with the Vikings and with the Leinstermen who, as a rule, were in alliance with them.
In 976 Mahon was betrayed and treacherously put to death by his Norse and Irish enemies. Brían, then 35 years of age, became king of Munster and took quick vengeance on the assassins. In three years’ time he was the undisputed king of the southern half of Ireland.
Meanwhile, another great leader had risen in the North, Malachy II, the King of Meath. He won a victory over the Norse at the Battle of Tara in 980 and became High King.
For a few years there was a show of friendship between the two kings and in 998 they came to an understanding. They made a truce according to which, on certain conditions, Malachy would be limited to sole sovereign of the northern half, and Brían of the southern half of Ireland. Thereupon the Leinstermen allied themselves with the Dublin Norse and revolted. Brían and Malachy united their forces, “to the great joy of the Irish,” as the Four Masters say, and in 997, defeated them “with red slaughter” at Glenmáma, near Dunlavin, County Wicklow. The Irish then marched to Dublin, ravaged Leinster, and expelled King Sigtryggr (Sitric), with whom Brían himself was afterwards to make peace and alliance.
The two Irish kings soon quarreled, and in the year 1002, Malachy, finding that there was defection in his ranks, was compelled to resign his supremacy to the superior force of Brían and to step down to the position of provincial king. Brían then became “Ard Ri,” and claimed the monarchy of the whole Gaelic race.
He set his royal seat at Kincora, where he ruled with a steady hand, establishing his power and authority on a firm basis.
Though much of his time was given to preparation for war, he still found time to build forts, roads and churches. He founded schools and encouraged learning, dispatched agents abroad to buy books, and during his reign the bardic schools began to rise again. But his title as High King was never truly recognized by the north. Nor were the Leinstermen any too friendly and he had to maintain permanent garrisons in parts of Munster.
He did not extirpate the Danes who were domiciled in Ireland or banish them from the kingdom, but treated them with the utmost leniency, and recognized the element of strength they would add to promote commerce and develop the resources of the country. In return for the Dublin Danes binding themselves to follow him in his wars, he was obliged to guarantee them and the other foreigners possession of their territory in Ireland. In furtherance of this policy, he found it to his interest to bind this peace by ties of marriage. A few months after the slaughter at Glenmáma he gave his daughter by his first wife in marriage to Sitric, his former opponent, while he himself married, as his second wife, Sitric’s mother, Gormlaith, a beautiful, powerful and intriguing Irish woman.
Gormlaith’s marriage to Brían was her third matrimonial venture. She was first married to Malachy II, then to Oláfr Kvaran (Amhlaobh “the Shoe”), the king of Norse Dublin by whom she had Sitric (who succeeded his father), and finally she was married to Brían Boru.
In the words of the sagaman and oral literature, “Gormlaith was the fairest of all women, and best gifted in everything that was not in her own power, but it was the talk of men that she did all things ill over which she had any power.”
It was through Gormlaith’s machinations and deadly hatred that Brían lost his life, and the last act in the long Norse-Irish drama was effected. A series of petty quarrels precipitated the denouncement.
One day in the year 1013, Gormlaith’s brother, the Leinster prince Maolmordha (Molloy), who was in alliance with the Dublin Danes, was bringing three large pine masts for ship building, probably as a tribute, to Brían at Kincora. As his men were climbing a boggy hill near Roscrea a quarrel broke out between them and other clansmen, and Maolmórdha, giving a hand to support one of the masts, tore a silver button from a tunic which Brían had given him. On arriving at Kincora he asked his sister to mend the tunic for him, but instead she threw it into the fire, saying he ought to be ashamed to accept any gift from Brían and thus admit his subjection to him. The taunt left a rankling wound in the heart of Maolmórdha. On another day Maolmórdha, while looking on while Brían’s eldest son, Murchadh (Morrough) and his cousin Conang were playing chess at Kincora, suggested a move which lost Murchadh the game. Then Murchadh angrily exclaimed, “That was like the advice you gave the Danes which lost them the battle of Glenmáma” – to which Maolmórdha replied, “Yes, and I will give them advice again, and this time they will not be defeated.”
When Brían heard of the altercation, he sent a man post-haste after Maolmórdha with gifts to appease him and to invite him back to Kincora. The messenger overtook him on the bridge of Killaloe, but Maolmórdha broke the man’s head and kept on his way until he reached home where he made known to his people the great insult he had received from Brían’s son. He then joined forces with the Leinstermen and others and attacked Brían’s ally, Malachy and defeated him.
In the meantime Brían had put away Gormlaith, who was then free to vent all her spleen on him. She sought to win the help of Sigurd, Earl of the Orkneys, who was Irish on his mother’s side. He promised to come, provided, in case of success, he should be king of Ireland and have the hand of Gormlaith.
Sitric next sought help from two Viking brothers who lived on the west coast of the Isle of Man. Ospak was a heathen, and Brodar had been a Christian but apostatized, and was regarded as a magician. He was a very tall man with long black hair which he wore tucked in under his belt, and he was clad in a coat of mail “which no steel could bite.” He too stipulated that he would come with twenty ships provided he should wed Gormlaith and become king of Ireland.
As Sitric was under instructions to get help at any price, he made no scruple to accept the terms on condition that the agreement was to be kept secret.
Ospak, who was dissatisfied with the arrangement, escaped from his brother during the night with his ten ships, sailed round Ireland and up the Shannon where he joined Brían and became his ally.
By Palm Sunday in the year 1014, a great host of the massed forces of the Norse lands assembled on the shore of Clontarf, a few miles north of Dublin. It consisted of 1,000 mail-clad Norsemen under Brodar, Vikings from Normandy, Flanders, England and Cornwall, and, above all, fierce fighting men from the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, and other islands off the west coast of Scotland. With them also were the men of their race who had settled in and around Dublin, and the Ui Cinnselaigh (Kinsellas) from Wexford and the men of Leinster. These latter were under the command of their king Maolmórdha.
On the side of Brían and Ireland were, besides his own people from Munster, the men of Connacht and Meath and the Christianized Norsemen. He also had an auxiliary force from Scotland under Domhnall, Great Steward of Mar, but he received no help from Ulster.
In spite of his 73 years of age, Brían wished to lead his army in person, but his advisers persuaded him to retire to a tent not far from the field and there to await the issue. The real commander of the Irish forces was Brían’s son, Murchadh, a captain of outstanding ability, who stationed himself with a select corps of troops from Desmond and Thomond facing Brodar’s mail-clad warriors.
Brían was unwilling to fight on Good Friday, but it had been prophesied to the Danes that if he fought on that day he would certainly be slain, so they forced the battle on Good Friday, which fell that year on April 23.
The combat began at sunrise when the tide was full and raged till sunset. Both armies were estimated at about 20,000 men but the Danes were better armed. Before the battle, Brían was said to have mounted his charger and, with a golden-hilted sword in one hand and a crucifix in the other, urged on his men to meet the enemy.
At the first onset, Brían’s men came in contact with the mail-clad men in the Danish center and were cut to pieces. But the enemy’s success was not lasting, and towards evening the efforts of the Irish were crowned with success and the day was saved by the arrival of Malachy’s men who were fresh and unwearied. (Malachy had at first refused to fight on Good Friday and so the battle had begun without him.)
Part of the enemy fled to their ships at Clontarf, but the returning tide had carried away the boats and prevented the escape of most of them. Great numbers were drowned in the sea and heaps of them lay dead on the ground. Four thousand of them are said to have fallen on Brían’s side and 7,000 on his opponent’s. Both parties lost most of their leaders, including the brave Earl Sigurd.
During the battle Brían was guarded in his tent at Magduma, near Tomar’s wood, by a “fence of shields,” composed of chosen warriors who surrounded him with their shields locked together. The king is said to have knelt on a cushion with his psalm-book open before him.
News was falsely brought to Brían that his son had fallen. Then a spy or traitor in the Irish camps, said to be Tadhg O Callaigh (O’Kelly), king of Ui Maine (Hy-many, now counties Galway and Roscommon), who afterwards fell in battle, pointed out Brían’s position to Brodar. The guard was overcome and, according to one account, Brían took his sword, slew the Norse invader and then killed himself; but the Norse account is that Brían was slain by a blow from Brodar who was slain in turn by an unknown hand.
It was a costly victory for the Irish; the king himself, the heir-apparent (his brave son Murchadh), and the heir apparent’s heir (Turlough), all fell in the battle. The bodies of the former two were brought to Armagh and interred honorably in a tomb nearby the sanctuary of Saint Patrick. On the conclusion of the battle the troops disbanded, each clan going to its own territory, and Donchadh, Brían’s son, who had been away on a foraging expedition and had taken no part in the battle, took command.
But the days of Ireland’s glory were departed. Had he or his family lived, the chance is that with the prestige of his name and the great victory at Clontarf, they would have founded a hereditary monarchy which would have put an end to disunion and demoralization and provided one of the strongest bulwarks against the Norman invasion which was soon to fall upon the country.
Brían’s death and that of his eldest son brought about the displacement of the Dalcassians and the restoration of Malachy to the throne. In the year after Clontarf, 1015, Malachy led an army against Dublin and suppressed the last attempts of the foreigners. He reigned eight years and died in 1022. Brave, magnanimous, and inspired by a lofty patriotism and chivalry, he was the last Irish king to reign without opposition.