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The Battle of Clontarf

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The Battle in progress

 


THE BATTLE OF CLONTARF

 

BRIAN BORU’S LAST COSTLY VICTORY

The Irish High King wanted to unite his people, but his enemies - including the Viking Brodir of Man - stopped him at Clontarf in 1014.

                   As the dreaded Viking longboats cut sleekly toward the shore dimly outlined in the evening dusk, the lights of the Irish army’s distant campfires could be seen a mile or so inland.  The ruse had worked for Brodir of Man.  The Vikings had fooled Irish High King Brian Boru into thinking they had deserted their allies at the fortress of Dublin.

                   In reality, the Vikings had simply sailed out of sight, to return in the darkness in hopes of catching the Irish unprepared for the enemy’s reappearance the next morning.  The Vikings also knew that the pious Brian would be loath to do battle on such a holy day as April 23, 1014, Good Friday.

                   More important to the Viking Brodir than such sacrosanct niceties were the treasures he would possess after he had destroyed the Irish armies.  Not only the wealth of the kingdom but also the high kingship itself might be his.  Of course, others coveted the same things - including his ally Sigtrygg, the Danish king of Dublin, and Sigurd, the Viking earl of the Orkney Isles.  But they could be dealt with after the Irish - including Brian Boru - had been destroyed.  First things first.

                   Ireland, to this day not noted for unity, consisted of 100 to 200 different tribal kingdoms in the early 11th century, as well as various Norse and Danish settlements scattered among the provinces of Ulster, Leinster, Connaught, Munster and Meath.  Sparsely populated and with few large villages, Ireland had become popular with the colonising Vikings in the 9th century.  It was not long before the invaders began to arrange marriage alliances with Irish noble families and assimilate into the culture of the island.  Many Irish boys were adopted by Norse settlers and became vicious fighters known to the Irish as the Gall-Gael, or “Sons of Death.”

                   Living in close proximity, the Irish warriors and Vikings fought constantly, with tribal factions joining one side or the other as circumstances dictated.  From such violent relations, blood feuds developed over the generations.

                   Although no standing army as such existed in Ireland, landowners owed military service to their tribe and had an obligation to defend tribal lands when they appeared threatened.  Each tribal chief provided a number of warriors from his own personal war band, as well as the warriors of his sub-chiefs, to his immediate superior - the number of warriors averaging 700 fighters per tribal unit.  The kings, troubled by the fickleness of their subjects, employed bands of mercenaries as bodyguards, although they had a habit of deserting to a higher bidder at inopportune times.  By the mid-9th century, most such mercenaries were Viking settlers from the Western Isles and Argyll, and “Scots” (Irish settlers) ... from “Alba” (what is now called Scotland).

                   The Irish warriors, educated by older, experienced soldiers, were brought up in a climate of almost continuous warfare.  It was the custom, say the ancient histories, for young men to prove their mettle by going to Connaught and killing a man.  Though the Irish appear to have been ferocious warriors, their actual military service obligations lasted a grand total of three fortnights every three years.  Undoubtedly, local leaders spent much of their wealth hiring mercenaries or paying for nonaggression treaties with their Viking neighbours.

                   Most of the old chroniclers depict the weaponry of the Irish as identical to that of the Vikings.  The chiefs wore chain-mail and helmets and wielded heavy two-handed axes.  The vast majority of warriors, however, fought unarmoured with spear, axe, shield and sword.

                   The Irish chiefs also employed large numbers of “kerns”, lightly armed skirmishers who used javelins - apparently longer-ranged missile weapons were considered a less-than-honourable method of inflicting casualties, even though weapons such as slings had been used from the earliest times.

                   A common Irish battle custom was to cut off the heads of slain enemies; another was to place a sword or spear-point between an enemy’s teeth while accepting the unfortunate warrior’s surrender.  Such ceremonies undoubtedly encouraged the antagonists to summon up their utmost skill and bravery to avoid being publicly humiliated.

                   In this violent, war-torn land the Vikings behaved toward the Irish just as viciously.  The Viking raiders, commanded by their earls and kings, numbered up to 1,000 men per leader; the leader paid and supplied the adventurers.  The Viking huscarl (housecarl) became synonymous with this hardy warrior race, well-armoured and loyal to the death to their earl.

                   Not all Vikings, however, were well-armed and armoured.  Though the bulk of the raiders became well-off as pirates, those new to the profession or conscripted out of need were more akin to the more lightly equipped Irish in dress and weaponry.

                   The standard Viking tactic was to form their divisions into shield walls, five or more men deep and close enough together to lock shields, allowing 1½ feet per man; that prevented missiles from doing much harm.  Vikings used the old-style German “boar’s head”, or swine array, attack formation, with their most heavily armoured and best-armed men in the front ranks and those more lightly armoured filling in behind.  This formation concentrated plenty of impact on a small frontage - a necessary tactic if the enemy’s shield wall were to be broken.  While their methods may sound simplistic today, the combination of honour-bound loyalty to the leader, superior armament and the incentives of loot and glory made the 11th-century Viking warrior a formidable opponent on land or at sea.

                   The Irish, loyal to their individual tribes, were poorly equipped in comparison to their Viking adversaries.  Still, fighting not for pillage but to protect their homes and families in most cases, the Irish managed to give a good account of themselves when battling the invaders.  The Irish prepared fortified encampments at night and entertained themselves with jugglers, poets and musicians to keep their spirits up during the grueling campaigns.  When in battle, the Irish would often make an impromptu mad dash at the enemy lines, hoping to smash into the enemy formation with enough momentum to cause their foe to break ranks and lose cohesiveness.

                   Unlike the Vikings, who felt that any form of deceit, subterfuge or underhandedness simply proved the wisdom of a leader, the Irish disdained the use of stealth and guile, though ambushes were considered a normal form of warfare.  The Irish often extended courtesies to their enemies, a practice that perplexed the Vikings.  In the year 1002, for instance, Brian Boru marched to Tara (the Irish capital) to demand that the High King Malachi either submit or do battle.  Malachi asked for a month’s delay - time to muster his army, and Brian upholding the Irish tradition of honourable fairness in war, granted his request.  The Irish sense of honour brought the grantor of such graces even greater glory in the end - provided that he was the victor!

                   Even though the Irish and Viking warriors were culturally similar, they retained their ethnic pride and prejudices.  During the centuries before the battle of Clontarf, historical momentum was building toward a final cataclysmic battle that would decide whether Ireland would remain Celtic or become another Viking colony.  To finally bring the issue to a bloody climax it only required an Irish leader who was sufficiently charismatic and physically powerful to unite the clans.

                   Brian mac Cenneidigh, born in the province of Munster around 941 AD, was the youngest of 12 brothers, all but two of whom would be killed in battle.  Members of the Dal Caissan clan, the brothers fought continuous wars against the Danes and Irish rivals from Leinster.  When his brother, Mahon, became King of Munster and eventually undertook a treaty with the Vikings of Ivar, who was the Norse king of Limerick, Brian Boru then waged guerrilla war against the Vikings from his base in the Thomond mountains.  When the Vikings broke their treaty, Brian lead an army that defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Sulchoid in 968.  (He then followed the Vikings back to Limerick.  Where he was so angry to find large numbers of enslaved Irish children that he executed three thousand Vikings in revenge.)

                   Mahon assumed the mantle of provincial king in 968, but he was assassinated eight years afterward.  Brian succeeded him.  He caught and killed the assassins who had murdered Mahon and then proceeded to bring the southern half of Ireland under his rule.  According to the ancient chronicle known as the Cogadh, “He was not a stone in place of an egg, nor a wisp of hay in place of a club; but he was a hero in place of a hero.”

                   Civil war, an endemic element of Irish history, did not abate during the latter part of the 10th century.  Malachi claimed the high kingship of Ireland in 980, after defeating the Danish Vikings at the Battle of Tara the year before.  Brian and Malachi then proceeded to fight a 20-year war before being forced to join forces just before the turn of the century to defeat an invading Danish Viking army at Glenmama.  They killed 7,000 of the enemy, sacked Dublin and ravaged Leinster in the process.  Malachi, acknowledging Brian’s military prowess and growing popularity, offered him the kingship of more than half the land, but Brian would be satisfied with nothing less than high king.  By 1002, Brian’s military strength proved overwhelming, and Malachi abdicated the throne.  Brian wasted no time in occupying it.

                   Though contemporaries described Brian Boru as an idealised, fearless king who fostered Irish nationalism, the reality was that Brian, intelligent enough to know the value of “good press,” generated political support with lavish liturgical patronage and used plenty of Viking-style cunning in his political dealings.  In effect, he appeared to contemporaries as the mystical type of leader that King Arthur represented for the Britons.

                   Around the turn of the century, Brian broke a peace treaty with the king of Meath, attacking and defeating him.  By 1005, he had used Viking-Irish renegades to mount raiding expeditions against the western shores of Britain, at the same time guaranteeing Danish Viking settlers in Ireland their territories in return for their military support.  Still, the ethnic hatred smouldered.  The Cogadh text notes that around 1013 Vikings had been billeted in many Irish homes for some time.  The moment came when Brian instructed his countrymen in each household to kill their “guests” on a given night as they slept and light a torch to signal that the deed was done.  Such was the reality of warfare in the age of heroes.

                   By the time he was 60, Brian had defeated Vikings and Irish contenders alike, setting the stage for a strong dynasty to rule over the fragmented island.  Factionalism was the only thing standing in the way of Irish unity.

                   The king of Leinster, Mael Morda, rose in revolt in 1012, refusing to acknowledge Brian’s rule.  Casting about for allies, he joined up with the always-troublesome Dublin Vikings in open defiance of the high king.  Brian tried diplomatically to dissolve this alliance by giving his daughter to Sigtrygg Silkbeard, the Danish king of Dublin, while he himself married the legendary Gormlaith, mother of Sigtrygg, sister to King Mael Morda of Leinster and former spouse of none other than Malachi!  This political alliance had too many powerful personages involved to be a success.

                   While transporting his “tree tribute” (a tax in the form of masts for ships), King Mael Morda broke a button off a tunic given to him by Brian.  He asked his sister Gormlaith to mend it, but she started to scold and shame him for accepting anything from her husband, Brian, and being subject to his rule.  Stung by his sister’s insults to his honour and manhood, Mael Morda murdered one of Brian’s heralds and rode off to his old allies, the Dublin Vikings.  Sigtrygg, ever anxious for a fight, wasted no time in welcoming his uncle, and immediately attacked an Irish ally of Brian’s, raising the banner of insurrection.  Various disaffected and rebellious Irish clans quickly threw in their lot with the Dublin Vikings.

                   Brian, incensed by Gormlaith’s meddling and intrigues, had her imprisoned while he marched for three months through the rebellious lands, raising havoc of his own before dispatching his son Murchad to raid the lands around Dublin.

                   Gormlaith, though imprisoned, did not sit idly by and accept her fate.  At 50 years of age, she had retained her beauty; she had little trouble persuading Sigurd, the Viking earl of the Orkney Isles (who was half-Irish), to come to her rescue.  Sigurd not only desired Gormlaith, but he also wanted to sit in Brian’s seat as high king, like his countrymen Svein and Cnut had done in England.  Sigtrygg also had sent an appeal for help to Sigurd, promising Gormlaith’s hand in marriage and support for Sigurd’s aspirations to the throne.  It seemed that the ever-so-reasonable Sigtrygg only wanted Sigurd to guarantee his continued rule over Dublin.  But Sigtrygg had other plans.  Attempting to garner as much military help as possible, the wily Dubliner promised Gormlaith to another renowned Viking warrior of the age - to Brodir of the Isle of Man.

                   Brodir, described by the Irish as a Christian “magician” with hair so long he had to tuck it in his belt and with mailed armour that reportedly could not be pierced by steel, make the same “deal” with Sigtrygg that Sigurd had made - Brodir was promised the Irish throne as well as a bride in return for military assistance.  Sigtrygg went so far as to tempt his own brother, but his brother, disgusted with the treacherous double-dealings of his sibling, joined the army of Brian Boru instead.  Still, the Vikings of Sigurd and Brodir, more than 2,000 of them, were a force to be feared. (1,000 of whom were covered in chain-mail from head to foot.)

                   As the forces formed during the winter of 1013-1014, Brian, informed of the mustering of Vikings and rebellious Irish clans in Dublin, called in his own allies - his old enemy Malachi and the clans of Meath, the clans of Connacht, Munster and his own Dal Caissans, as well as a thousand foreign (Viking) mercenaries.  Once the muster had been completed, Brian sent his second oldest son, Donnchad, on a raiding expedition into the rebellious Irish territories, while Brian himself took the main army and marched through Leinster toward Viking Dublin.  Brian’s strategy was sound.  By attacking and continuing to harass the rebel bases, he saw to it that many of the rebellious clans would refuse to leave their threatened homes and march to Dublin.  The rebel army never reached the size it potentially could have because Brian cleverly managed to neutralise a sizeable portion of it.

                   As Sigurd and other Viking adventurers who had joined him sailed in the tributaries outside Dublin, they were met by Sigtrygg, Mael Morda’s Irish Leinstermen, the Dublin Vikings, and the Irish rebels from various clans.  Shortly thereafter, Brodir of Man and his Viking warriors arrived.  The allied-Viking army resisting Brian Boru reportedly also contained English, Gall-Gael, Welsh, Flemish and French warriors, as well as a handful of Normans.  This amalgamation of troops allegedly fought for promised land and pillage as well as for glory and honour.  Yet, to read of their determined hand-to-hand combat, revenge for age-old wrongs seems as much a determinant as anything else.

                   As he approached the town, Brian Boru’s own Irish army suffered a serious blow.  Perhaps because of old quarrels, the Irishmen of Meath, commanded by ex-high king Malachi, drew off from the rest of the army and refused to take part in the battle plans.  Although upset by the reluctance of his ally, Brian then was heartened by “news” that the Viking forces had boarded their longships and headed out to sea, apparently deserting Sigtrygg.  Unknown to the Irish leaders, of course, Sigtrygg, Brodir and Earl Sigurd had planned this ruse to lull the Irish into a sense of false security.  The Vikings sailed out of sight and immediately turned around, arriving back on the darkened beaches near Clontarf after sunset and thus ensuring that a battle would be fought on Good Friday. 

                   Brian’s army, depleted by Malachi’s refusal to fight, still managed to muster 7,000 or so warriors.  Not only were Brian’s Irish troops present, but there were also warriors from “Alba” (Scotland) and Norway and a contingent of newly Christianised Manx Vikings - all of whom prepared to fight the more heavily armoured allied-Viking  force.

                   The night before the battle, the Vikings were informed that Sigurd had brought a sacred raven banner, woven by his mother, which had the magical properties of ensuring victory for the army if carried before it - but also promising death to its bearers.  He tried to downplay that part of the prophecy; even so, he would have a difficult time finding volunteers to bear his mother’s banner the next morning.

                   As dawn broke, the Vikings assembled on the shores near Clontarf before their beached boats, a mile and a half from the walls of Dublin.  (At that time all of Dublin town was south of the Liffey.  Only DubhGall’s Bridge – “Doyle’s Bridge” – connected it to the north side where the Vikings were coming ashore.)  If Brian Boru and his followers were totally aghast at such a surprise, it was not immediately apparent.  Indeed, adversarial warriors in the fortress were graciously allowed by the Irish to leave their walled fortress unmolested and join the Vikings forming up near the oak forrest on the north shore. 

Viking with axe

 

                   Brian, though reluctant to take an active part in a battle on Good Friday, did ride before his assembling forces, carrying a crucifix in one hand and a sword in the other.  He gave a short but inspiring speech to his warriors assembled to do battle and then retired to the rear, accompanied by a number of personal escorting guards, who formed a shield wall around him.  (Brian Boru had camped at what is now Kilmainham the night before, in a dense stand of oak trees known as Tolmar’s Wood.)  The Irish, incensed by years of bloody skirmishes, of loved ones being killed or captured and homes destroyed, prepared to destroy the hated Vikings and their renegade Irish allies.

                   The allied-Viking army formed up into five battle divisions on the field; a sixth remained in Dublin, where Sigtrygg also stayed with 1,000 of his Dublin Vikings manning the walls, effectively guaranteeing himself a ringside seat without fear of personal harm.  Sigtrygg’s son commanded the extreme left division of the allied-Viking army as leader of all those Dublin warriors who desired to fight in the open that day, perhaps another 1,000 men.  Next in line stood a strong, 3,000-man force of Irish rebels  from Leinster in two divisions, commanded by Brian’s rebellious brother-in-law, Mael Morda.  Armed and armoured the same as the Irish clans opposite them, these fighters from Leinster were the weakest link in the allied-Viking line.  Sigurd’s Orkney Vikings manned the center - 1,000 well-armoured, axe-wielding veterans of many wars.  And finally, on the right were stationed Brodir’s Vikings, 1,000 or more them, eager to come to grips with the supposedly inferior foe.  Brodir’s men anchored their flank on the banks of Dublin Bay, where the longboats lay beached.

                   Opposite the Viking allies, Brian’s allied-Irish forces also formed into regional divisions.  On the Irish right, 1,000 foreign mercenaries and Manx Vikings assembled opposite the Dublin Vikings.  Next to them, 1,500 clansmen of Connacht were gathered under their kings, while more than 2,000 Munster warriors under Brian’s son Murchad continued the front, flanked by 1,400 Dal Caissans on the extreme left - they were led by Murchad’s 15-year-old son, Tordhelbach, and Brian’s brother, Cuduiligh.  Off to the right of the army and several hundred yards to the rear stood the reluctant army of Meath, 1,500 strong under Malachi, watching and waiting - perhaps to see which side prevailed before becoming involved.

                   As the forces formed up into their respective battle arrays, a Danish Viking chief roared a challenge across the field to an Irish leader, “Where’s Domhnall?”  Came the reply, “Here, thou reptile,” and reportedly each man soon fell with the other’s sword in his breast and holding the adversary’s hair.  Such was the grim, no-quarter combat that would be the norm this day.

                   Several other names were called out as more individuals advanced to the middle ground between the armies to settle grudges and family feuds.  The massed onlookers cheered on the various combatants who strode into the no-man’s land between the two forces to offer or accept a challenge.  As the individual contests were fought between old enemies, the two armies slowly began to move toward each other in the early morning light.

                   Inevitably, the forces closed with crushing impact; their brutal edged weapons crashing down on helmet and shield.  Swinging his deadly axe with frightful effect, Brodir fought his way through the first ranks of his enemies, pushing back the Irishmen before him until a renowned warrior, Wolf the Quarrelsome, sought him out and hit him twice with such force that the Viking fell, only managing to escape Wolf’s axe by ignominiously fleeing into the woods to his right.

                   In the center, the Leinstermen of Mael Morda dealt harshly with the Munster clans opposing them.  They pushed their fellow Irishmen back, and Sigurd’s Orkney Vikings added to the Irish despair by smashing into the already engaged and lightly armed Munstermen.

                   Sigurd fought hard, following his “magical” raven banner and watching the prophecies of the seers come to pass.  An Irish leader led a mad, impetuous attack directed at the raven standard and viciously killed the Vikings near it.  He slew the standard-bearer, who was immediately replaced by another, but he, too, fell to the Irish blades.

                   According to the old histories, Earl Sigurd ordered the chieftain Thorstein to pick up the fallen standard, but Asmund the White warned that he would die if he took it.  Thorstein walked away.  Sigurd then turned to another chieftain, who told him to carry it himself.  Sigurd, unwilling to show cowardice or fear, did pick up the banner, but placed it under his cloak, hoping to avoid the Irish blades.  His ruse was to no avail - Brian’s son Murchad sought him out and felled the Orkney leader with a spear thrust.

                   Brodir’s men, still a threat even with their leader hiding in the woods, were attacked by the omnipresent Murchad, who led his personal bodyguard of 140 “king’s sons” along the line of battle, bolstering morale and valour by his presence in the Irish ranks.  As in most battles of this period, a leader’s example could not honourably be ignored, and men would fight to the death to gain his notice, respect and encouragement.

                   Murchad’s assault broke the Manx Vikings, who, with their leader gone, began to flee back towards their ships.  This left the Leinstermen isolated, although they continued to press the Munster clans hard after hours of bloody push and shove.  Curiously, the ebb and flow of battle was often interrupted while men from both sides drew back from each other to gain a few moments of mutually needed rest.

                   Although victorious so far, Mael Morda’s Leinster clans were tired, disordered and severely weakened by the heavy losses sustained in hours of battle.  Rallying, the Munstermen mounted a desperate counterattack against Mael Morda’s troops, and in a wild, frenzied, tooth-and-nail fight, Mael Morda and the Munster chieftain killed each other.

                   On the Viking left, meanwhile, the Dublin Vikings fought toe to toe against the foreign (Viking) mercenaries Brian had hired.  Here, the axes and spears of the professional warriors cut through Danish (Dublin Viking) chain-mail with deadly effect.  Slowly, the Dublin Vikings were forced to fight a delaying action they could not maintain.  They lost touch with the supporting Leinstermen on their right.  And as the Leinster clans became even further isolated, several groups of them joined the Orkney Vikings on their immediate flank, the two forces momentarily holding in the face of increasing Irish pressure.

                   Somewhere at this point in the battle, either the Norwegian Prince Anwud or Eric of Denmark fought his way through to the exhausted Murchad, who still managed to throw the attacking Viking to the ground and stab him before he, too, was killed.  Here was yet another example of the propensity for leaders of note to seek each other out and fight their own individual battles throughout the daylong contest.

                   The deadly axes of the foreign (Viking) auxiliaries finally broke the Dublin Vikings, who began to run for their fortress.  The Orkney Vikings, finding their allies evaporating around them and seeing that Earl Sigurd and the “magical” raven banner had fallen, also began to break ranks and retreat to their ships.

                   The diffident Malachi had held his own Irishmen in place all day, watching their fellow countrymen bleed and die on the fields before them.  But now that the Viking enemy appeared to be in retreat, he ordered his Meath warriors to join the battle.  Any possibility of the Vikings rallying died in this final attack.  As the Dublin Vikings streamed toward the single bridge into Dublin, they were caught by Malachi’s fresh Irish warriors, and in the ensuing panic only a handful of survivors managed to return to Sigtrygg’s garrison.

                   On the other flank, the Orkney and Manx Vikings had nowhere to run.  During the course of the long battle, the tide had come in, cutting the Vikings off from the safety of their ships.  The choice being Irish blades or a hazardous swim, most elected to run into the sea.  As the Vikings fled into the water, Brian’s 15-year-old grandson Tordhelbach, caught up in the fury of battle, chased two Danes into the ocean and dragged them under, drowning himself in the process.

                   Not all of the defeated Vikings would be killed, however.  Thorstein, the Viking who had wisely refused to carry Sigurd’s raven banner, was exhausted and resigned to his fate.  He had paused to tie his shoelace when the Munstermen caught him and asked why he had not continued to run.  Thorstein replied, “Because I can’t get home tonight, since I am at home out in Iceland.”  The Irish, generous in their victory, allowed the Icelander to live.

                   Not so with another leading participant.  It seems Brodir, hiding in the woods, saw Brian just outside, lightly guarded while most of his men were off in furious pursuit of the fugitives.  The Vikings fell upon the few Irish retainers, decapitating Brian with one blow.  Then they retreated, Brodir yelling, “Now let man tell man that Brodir felled Brian,” and were quickly subdued and taken prisoner by the enraged Irish.  According to the Viking sagas, Wolf the Quarrelsome ordered that Brodir’s men be killed and that Brodir himself should die a lingering coward’s death.

                   Losses to both sides were incredibly high.  Out of a total of between 7,000 and 8,000 combatants, the estimated allied loss was more than 6,000, including almost all the leaders.  Irish losses were least 1,600, and perhaps as high as 4,000, including their king, Brian Boru.  It became one of the bloodiest battles in Irish history.  The annals tell of blood dripping from trees in the forest where the most savage axe-fighting took place.

                   The next day, Donnchad arrived and tried to tempt Sigtrygg out of Dublin, but to no avail.  So, on Easter Sunday, the dead Irish leaders were gathered up along with the wounded, and the Irish warriors marched home, leaving behind the stripped bodies of several thousand corpses.

                  Every invading Viking leader was killed during the Battle of Clontarf.  Also slain was Maelmora of Leinster, together with most of his chieftains.  Sigtrygg Silkbeard did not die, however, because he did not fight.  With his mother Gormlaith, he watched the entire battle in safety from the walls of Dublin.  Murrough, the son Brian Boru had trained to succeed him, was killed late in the day.  Murrough’s 15 year old son Turlough was found dead in the fishing weir at Clontarf, his fingers still clutching the hair of a slain Viking.  Most of Brian’s other sons died at Clontarf as well.  There was no man left alive capable of taking the place of Brian Boru.

Sigtrygg watching the battle from the safety of Dublin

 Sigtrygg watching the battle from the safety of Dublin

                   With his troops still fresh and at full strength, latecomer Malachi claimed the Irish throne once again - and there were few left to oppose him. 

                  Sigtrygg held out in Dublin until his death in 1042, while the surviving Danes and Norsemen were assimilated into the Irish populace and culture.  At this stage the Vikings had been in Ireland for more than 200 years, they had married Irish women, built towns and established trade.  The Vikings were part of Ireland now.  The cultures of Viking and Gael were merging.  (In 1035 Sigtrygg left Dublin to go on a religious pilgrimage.  When he returned the following year, he gave a grant of gold and treasure plus “a place on which to build a church of the Blessed Trinity”, establishing what would become Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin.)

                  Donnchad succeeded Malachi as high king, but was deposed by a rebellious faction in the 1050s, when wars fought over the throne became even more brutal, ending only with an Anglo-Norman invasion in the next century.

                  Clontarf was a spectacular, if costly, victory for Brian’s armies.  After Clontarf the invading Vikings concentrated their efforts on England and Scotland.  By the following year a Danish Viking called Canute would rule England.  (The last Viking expedition to Ireland took place in 1102.  In that year the King of Norway, Magnus Barefoot, sailed into Dublin harbour.  He was met by Muircheartach Ua Brian with an army at his back.  Magnus promptly arranged a truce and, after spending some time in the city, sailed peaceably back to Norway.  When he returned to Ireland the following year, however, Magnus was ambushed and slain on the coast of Ulster.  He was buried by the Irish in the cathedral at Downpatrick, out of respect for his kingship.)

                   The stories, songs and poems of glory and battlefield prowess at Clontarf that appeared over the next few hundred years took on a unique importance.  In the late Middle Ages, if Irish families could not claim an ancestor killed at the battle, they were not considered truly noble ..........

 

                   On modern Dublin’s Sandymount Strand, a young boy with fair hair and sea-blue eyes walks alone on the beach.  He leaves footprints in the damp sand.  Seagulls wheel overhead, crying.  The boy is paying no attention to the great modern city of Dublin which rises behind him.  Insted he keeps gazing out to sea, watching the waves coming rolling in with their message from foreign shores.  He dreams of what lies beyond the horizon.  Some day he may go and see for himself.

                     The Vikings never left Ireland.

                     They are still there!

 

 

 

Sources for the foregoing article included Morgan Llewellyn’s The Lion of Ireland, a popular novel; and as two primary sources, The Story of Burnt Njal, translation by Sir G.W. Dasent; and The Orkneyinga Saga, translation by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards.

 

 

 

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