The Battle of Clontarf, Good Friday 1014

Published in Book Reviews, Featured-Book-Review, Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

58Darren McGettigan
Four Courts Press
£17.50

ISBN 9781846823848

This is an example of an expert book written by a self-confessed non-expert—and it is a resounding success. Darren McGettigan’s previous work has been focused firmly on the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the world of Red Hugh O’Donnell and the Donegal plantation. In a major departure from this post-medieval time of thwarted ambition, the author has immersed himself in the primary (including manuscript) and secondary sources relating to the famous event of a millennium ago that is currently being commemorated and re-evaluated. Re-evaluation is long overdue, for in the ‘popular mind’ (if such there be) the battle of Clontarf is still seen as a victory by noble and valiant Munstermen over dreaded and dreadful Vikings, along with their treacherous Leinster allies. Brian Boru died a hero’s death and the dream of a united Ireland died with him. A weakened and dysfunctional polity was left exposed to the tender mercies of those latter-day terrorists—the English.

This is a comparatively short book, with four main chapters. The first is contextual, a portrait of Ireland in the age of Viking in-vasions. McGettigan’s technique is illustrative and impressionistic; there is no scope for any sort of continuous history. Aspects of kingship, settlement and social hierarchy are sketched in. The weaponry and fighting techniques of both the Irish and the Vikings are essential com-ponents of the background. One key point here is that Viking armies were often defeated by Irish ones; the great battle fought at Clontarf was typical in that regard. A prime example of an Irish ‘scourge of the Scandinavians’ was Muirchertach of the Leather Cloaks, who like Brian met his death (in 943) at the hands of Vikings. Whereas Irish monasteries had always been easy targets, Irish armies were both numerous and murderous in their capabilities. Another part of the background is hybridisation, arising from intermarriage and from regular trading contacts between Gaels and foreigners. Irish people as well as Scandinavians were living in Ueigsfjor∂r (Wexford), just as Scandinavians as well as Irish people were living in Duiblinn (Dublin). A king of Dublin, Óláfr Sigtryggsson Kváran (Amlaíbh Cuarán), had at least one poem written in his honour, in Irish. The cosy world of Gaelic Leinster had become topsy-turvy long before a Munster upstart came along to disturb it further.

The second chapter tells the story of Brian Boru’s rise to prominence (as distinct from real power) as high-king of Ireland in 1002. An interesting aspect of the earlier rise to power in Munster of the Dál Cais (the inflated name invented for themselves by the minor Uí Toirdealbaig dynasty) is their relationship to Vikings. A major stepping-stone was the defeat of the Limerick Vikings by Brian’s brother, Mathgamain, in 967. When Brian himself entered upon the business of challenging Máel Sechnaill II of Meath for the high-kingship of Ireland, he made use of Viking fleets and allies as it suited him. In the end, however, Brian’s effective high-kingship lasted for only a few months in 1011–12; it was ephemeral and would have remained so even if he had lived for longer.

As in the case of another famous battle fought on Irish soil—at the Boyne crossing in 1690—there was an international dimension to the lead-up to Clontarf. Brian Boru’s kingship of Munster coincided with Danish raids on Anglo-Saxon England, which culminated in a Viking takeover of that country early in 1013. This may have given the Hiberno-Norse king of Dublin, Sitric Silkenbeard/Sigtryggr Óláfsson Silkiskeggi, an opportunity to throw off the yoke of his father-in-law’s overlordship. Sitric could be a force to be reckoned with, as is reflected in Icelandic saga material. When seeking allies in his rebellion against Brian, he travelled north and east to enlist, successfully, significant forces from both Orkney and Man. The old Viking network of the Lochlannaigh was still serviceable in the spring of 1014. King Svein Forkbeard of Denmark had conquered England; could Jarl Sigurd the Stout of Orkney do the same in Ireland?

The book’s final chapter deals, appropriately enough, with the climactic battle fought at Clontarf. Its location and course are discussed in a sensible manner, stress being laid on how much remains and must always remain in the realm of speculation. The Munstermen appear to have taken advantage of gently rising ground away from the shoreline of Dublin Bay, on to which the Viking–Leinster forces landed in ships coming out from Dublin. This created the tactical possibility that a probably larger Munster army could aim to push their opponents back towards the treacherous sands and waters of the bay—hence the reported mass drowning. How the Manx leader Bródar came across Brian in his tent in the later stages of the battle is unknown, but the consequences are clear. One was that Clontarf was a pyrrhic victory for the Dál Cais, amongst whom the surviving half-brothers Donnchadh and Tadhg fought other battles for supremacy. The high-kingship was resumed by the Uí Néill in the person of Máel Sechnaill II, who took the opportunity to plunder and burn Dublin in the following year. Ireland was on course for the age of the trembling sod, the dream of unity snuffed out for centuries to come.

McGettigan’s book is full of details and insights, referenced to the primary sources. One of its strengths is a sense of Irishness: time and again we are given the Irish text accompanied by a translation. Another is the remarkable selection of illustrations. There is (surprisingly) no prefatory list, but the 32 images amount to an eclectic mix of artefacts, illuminated manuscripts, photographs, prints and maps. This is a book from which there is much to learn and in which there is much to enjoy.

Reviewed By
Howard Clarke

Howard Clarke is professor emeritus of medieval socio-economic history at University College Dublin.

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