Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf

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

57Seán Duffy
Gill and Macmillan
£24.99

ISBN 9780717157785

Forty-two years have passed since Gill and Macmillan, in what became a celebrated series of history books, enabled Donnchadh Ó Corráin to write that Clontarf ‘was not a struggle between the Irish and the Norse for the sovereignty of Ireland’ but rather a revolt of the Leinstermen against ‘the domination of Brian . . . in which their Norse allies played an important but secondary role’. There is still much to be said for this, except that I would posit that it was domination of Dublin and not of Ireland that was in question, and that Sitric, king of Dublin, by bringing in Jarl Sigurd of the Orkneys and his supporters as allies, unwittingly made that secondary role primary, which might have had serious consequences for Dublin and even for Ireland if the Vikings had won in 1014. Ó Corráin was certainly right in claiming that the result at Clontarf did not ‘break the power of the Norse forever’. As the archaeological evidence shows, they just went on in a different way.

Now, with this most useful and en-gagingly presented history about Brian and Clontarf from the same publisher, Seán Duffy has produced a written-sources-led investigation into the origins, background and rise of Ireland’s greatest early medieval warrior-king, who was killed at the moment of his greatest triumph exactly 1,000 years ago. And the author comes down on the traditional side of the argument that Brian prevented a Viking takeover of Ireland.

Duffy’s book is a master-class in how the different annals and later texts, notably the Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh (with its ‘extraordinarily enticing detail’), in all their versions, borrowings, omissions and emphases, with their locational biases and chronological pitfalls, can be judiciously balanced and used in an accessible and unpretentious way by a specialist craftsman at the height of his powers. The author’s familiarity with the Gaelic sources and his skill at straining nuggets of historical truth from Icelandic (not Scandinavian) and other relevant literature results in an acceptable record of Brian the man, his good fortune and his frequently violent path to the top, as well as of the subsequent seemingly unavoidable slide into the most blood-smeared of Irish battles. It was a brutal age populated by bullies, hard men and even savages (Brian’s sister Orlaith was put to death for adultery).

It is a joy to see the Gaelic texts featured in both their original and their translated forms. It is also interesting to see several borrowings from Old Norse—including, appropriately, the words for mercenaries (svartleggja) and billeted soldiers (suartletu). The discussion on the location of the battle site is convincing. The importance of the different parts of Wales to eastern Ireland and the provision of clear explanations for the different grades of Gaelic society are welcome. So are the proceedings connected with the selection of kings, the rites associated with their in-auguration and the identification of the royal personalities from whom so many of our enduring family names derive. The latter will be among the several absorbing sidelights which, together with the clarity of Duffy’s narrative and its accessible, commonsensical and uncondescending style, make this work so user-friendly for students and the general public as well as for specialists, who will find much with which to engage.

The book is divided into two, with three chapters on Brian and his origins and three on Clontarf, and there is an introductory chapter on the structure of Gaelic society, featuring descriptions of entitlements, the role of heirs-apparent and tribute (and hence Brian’s nickname). The book closes with an examination of the legacy of both Brian and Clontarf. The lengthy introduction shows how difficult was the journey for a minor royal to the high-kingship and, even more relevantly, how resented Brian continued to be even after his ascent to the summit.
Among the main standard-bearers of this jealousy and resentment were Leinster’s ruling family, to one of whose princesses, Gormlaith, Brian had once been married. She had also been married to the great Viking king of Dublin Amlaíbh Cuarán, the father of her son Sitric ‘Silkenbeard’, the current king of Dublin. This remarkable woman was a kind of tenth/eleventh-century Zsa Zsa Gabor (or a sovereignty symbol, as Duffy sees her). She kept being married off to kings whom she egged on to revenge and war—always, one suspects, in the interests of Leinster.

Professor Duffy’s celebration of Brian and his deeds is almost as if, in modern terms, he was embedded in his campaigns and battles and in receipt of Dal Cáis position reports. At least he absolves Sitric of the weakness/cuteness that is sometimes attributed to his absence from the actual battle. He stayed back in Dublin to defend the town (not ‘city’, which crops up here) or dún (I prefer Howard Clarke’s more ample definition of this as ‘fortress’). The experience of the post-Glenn Máma destruction of the town by the Dal Cáis and of other parallel occasions (including by Máel Sechnaill’s Mide army after Tara as far back as 980) would have put the Dubliner on his guard. Worse still, he might have had to keep his erstwhile ally Sigurd at bay if the battle had swung the other way. For Sigurd, a warrior well aware of the wealth of Dublin, as he provisioned its ships and traffic in his Orkney home, Dublin was the real prize and the real (though undisclosed) reason for the risk he and his army took at Clontarf, not the proverbial ‘hand’ of the aging Leinster woman whom her son had also, apparently, promised to Bródar of York (also a casualty at Clontarf) in the event of a win.

Incidentally, Brian’s tendency to destroy captured towns rather than sparing them for extortion hardly places him in the van of urbanisation, as Seán Duffy would have it. The first Irish king to fully appreciate domination rather than destruction of towns was Diarmait Mac Máel na mBó, whose approach may have been learned from the Saxon Godwinssons and was later emulated by Brian’s descendants Tairdelbach and Muirchertach.

My only trouble with the present work relates to its implication that the now London-based Danish kings were interested in an Irish conquest. Thanks to Sitric, especially after Clontarf, there appears to have been close cooperation with them on pilgrim travel (safe access to Rome through Emperor Konrad’s territory arranged through Knut and attested by porphyry souvenirs from our excavations), as well as in the transmission of mutually admired fashions in Ríngerike ornament (which really took off in Dublin and is also found at St Paul’s churchyard in London) and in items of commerce. There is no hint, however, of a desire for conquest from the Danish side (how close were they anyway to their distant Atlantic cousins?). They wouldn’t have had the capacity; theirs was a North Sea axis.

Rather, Jarl Sigurd of the Orkneys was the big man on the ‘Viking’ side at Clontarf, and his ambition must have been to take over Dublin, its fleet and commerce. It was to his court that Sitric fled after the fiasco of Christmas 1013 when the Dal Cáis withdrew, allowing the Dubliner to drum up support in the Orkneys and elsewhere. The ‘hand’ of Gormlaith would not be enough to satisfy Sigurd the Stout. Dublin itself was surely the prize, the logical next step for a leader whose branch of the Norse had become rich creaming off the busy traffic to Dublin. ‘Fare then south to Dublin’, was the advice in Egil’s Saga, and it must also have been Sigurd’s.

Another reservation with the present approach is its apparent reluctance to exploit published archaeological evidence. For while the author spectacularly parades the radiocarbon dates for an early pre-longphort settlement in the Golden Lane area of Dublin and uses excavated fishtraps from the Shannon estuary to explain how young Tadg might have become skewered by the wattles of a weir during the battle, he noticeably avoids it elsewhere. I know this is a history book but a sentence from the works of Frances Pritchard and Elizabeth Wincott Heckett on the silks and brocades from the Dublin excavations would confirm that the luxuries found in Limerick after the rout of Sulchóid were not ‘exaggerated’ in later descriptions. And Máelmórda’s tunic with its gold border and silver fasteners seems rather like one reported on from Dunmore Cave in Archaeology Ireland not too long ago. My 1987 Göttingen paper on trade and commerce would have helped to establish the author’s interest in a Danish connection, as does my Dolley festschrift piece on English connections, which is cited in the bibliography but not used.

Andrew Halpin’s book on Viking Age weapons and warfare would have helped with an understanding of the battle, and even with the kinds of wounds that might be expected. Hayes-McCoy’s is the only attempt by a military historian to understand the battle from that angle and might also have been used. So might A.T. Lucas’s seminal Irish–Norse relations paper in matters concerning the use of warships by the Dal Cáis.

In terms of logistics, space might have been found to describe how Brian and his followers might have been dressed, what choices of weapon were open to them, what court life was like and what might have been the palace atmosphere at Kincora. Some of these questions are impossible to answer but they might at least have been posed. For example, in travelling to Clontarf, what was the route taken? Were there road surfaces? How long did the journey take? How many travelled on horseback (our excavations have yielded spurs, stirrups and chain-mail)? Were scouts used? Was the progress of the army determined by that of the cattle upon which they fed or did they raid for provisions (in hostile territory) or depend on the hospitality of subjects/allies along the way? Were they accompanied by relevant craftsmen, such as smiths for horses and weapon repairs, and were there carts/wagons for the transport of tents, raw materials and provisions?

Notwithstanding these few archaeologically inspired niggles, my concern about Dublin not getting enough prominence and the insufficient recognition of the importance of the role of Sigurd and not the Danes, I cannot recommend enough Seán Duffy’s book for its readability and the enormous amount of back-breaking historical scholarship lightly borne and compellingly presented.

Reviewed By
Patrick Wallace

Patrick Wallace is Director Emeritus of the National Museum of Ireland. His book on the context of the Wood Quay excavations, which he directed, will appear shortly.

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