Clontarf in 1914: Nationalist Commemoration of the Battle

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Volume 22

Irishmen oppose the landing of the Viking fleet 841 AD—one of Dublin City Hall’s murals painted in 1914. (Dublin City Council)

Irishmen oppose the landing of the Viking fleet 841 AD—one of Dublin City Hall’s murals painted in 1914. (Dublin City Council)

Against a backdrop of political uncertainty regarding Home Rule, and with soon-to-be-armed volunteers appearing on Irish streets, North and South, the Battle of Clontarf was presented as a definitive victory for a native Irish force over a foreign aggressor.

The Irish Volunteer and Clontarf
The first edition of the Irish Volunteer appeared on 7 February 1914, following the establishment of the nationalist body in November 1913. It featured articles on everything from ‘modern weapons of warfare’ to first-aid training. Alongside these contemporary articles were features, poems and songs drawing on the past, attempting to give a historical narrative to this new force. Clontarf and the struggle against ‘the Danes’ emerge from its pages as being every bit as important as the insurrections of more recent times. One song, ‘The Shan Van Vocht’, written in the days of the United Irishmen, was amended to reflect the aspirations of this new body:

‘And God bless my Volunteers,
Says the Shan Von Vocht.
And God bless my Volunteers,
Says the Shan Van Vocht.
They’ve hot blood in their veins,
And they’ll burst your galling chains,
As they did the robber Danes,
Says the Shan Van Vocht.’

Sir Roger Casement contributed an article entitled ‘From Clontarf to Berlin: national status in sport’, in which he referred to the battle as ‘one of the really great events in our history of depression’. For Casement, one of the lessons of Clontarf was ‘that to be a good Irishman means also to be a good Christian’, and ‘Clontarf, Christian Clontarf, calls Ireland back to manhood: let Irish manhood and boyhood respond to that call’. Casement outlined a belief that Ireland, with a degree of political independence achieved, should send men forward to the 1916 Olympics in Berlin, as a demonstration of that Irish manhood, strength and ability.

The Irish Volunteer called for a presence of uniformed men at Clontarf on Easter Sunday 1914, noting in its 28 March edition that:

‘Corps throughout the country are eagerly awaiting orders for the big event, and are holding themselves in readiness to send contingents for the fitting celebration of a great national victory. And undoubtedly a Volunteer review will be a fitting and a worthy celebration of Ireland’s victory over the Dane.’

A week later ‘Conan Maol’, alias P.J. O’Shea, disagreed:

‘I think it is my duty to protest such an unwise step. We are not out for a star turn. We know some drill, but we are weaponless . . . It will be mainly a splash of mud oratory by speakers whom Brian would not understand and who know little of him and his times, nor of the events which led up to the great battle.’

An interesting theme that emerged on occasion was the celebration of the assimilation of the Vikings after their defeat at Clontarf. Thomas McDonagh, in his ‘Marching Song of the Volunteers’, wrote that:

‘Tired of wayfaring here he found
The welcome due to a valiant foe:
The Viking stock on Irish ground
Has grown and strongly still shall grow’.

In the pages of An Claidheamh Soluis, an editorial soon after the anniversary of the battle outlined a hope that Ulstermen could be won to the cause of Ireland, as ‘The Ireland that assimilated the Dane and the Norman should not fail, if opinion were not poisoned by the malicious teachings of the foreigner, to assimilate the Ulsterman who researched Ireland speaking the Gaelic, and not the Saxon tongue’. The significance of Brian Boru to the Volunteers is clear from the naming of their Ennis formation as the Brian Boru Corps. It was reported by the Irish Times on 27 May 1914 that the men of the Brian Boru Corps had led a march in the town in celebration of the third reading of the Home Rule Bill, ‘followed by an immense crowd, who cheered John Redmond and Home Rule’.

The year witnessed several commemorations of both the battle and Brian Boru himself. In April thousands gathered at Kincora, with the Nenagh Guardian proclaiming that ‘in a year when we are verging on Home Rule’ the rally was a fitting event:

‘Never since the days of Brian Boru has world-famed Kincora—the birth-place of Ireland’s greatest king—come so prominently forward as it did on Sunday last, when thousands of Irishmen of all political and religious beliefs assembled to honour the name of Brian Boru; for was it not he who drove the Danes back at the Battle of Clontarf, and who relieved Ireland to a certain extent of the thraldom of the Scandinavian.’

The lines between history and contemporary politics were blurred in Kincora, with one speaker informing the crowd that if Brian Boru were alive among them ‘he would go out for the Irish language and would take part in the Volunteers, and not the Carson Volunteers’. The Volunteers themselves featured in some local commemorations, for example at Fermoy, where a crowd heard from a reverend chairing proceedings that ‘there was no finer example than that of Brian Boru, who, at the head of his army, holding the crucifix aloft, exhorted his troops to victory in their battle for Faith and Fatherland’.

The absence of a central, public commemoration was noted by some commentators, and it was not until May that it was reported that Dublin Corporation had invited county councils and other public bodies to discuss commemorating the anniversary. A writer in the Ulster Herald bemoaned the fact that ‘few throughout the length and breadth of the land’ had marked the anniversary, but did praise the ‘bright, burning fires’ lit in some of the hills of Donegal in honour of Clontarf. The Abbey Theatre in Dublin marked the anniversary with a revival of Kincora by Lady Gregory, which was generally well received by the media.

Clontarf and Brian Boru continued to play an important role in the nationalist narrative and the ideology of Irish separatism after 1914. Seamus Daly, a member of the Irish Volunteers, in his statement to the Bureau of Military History recalled Thomas McDonagh addressing him and others on Holy Thursday 1916, and preparing weapons at Clontarf for the insurrection ahead. McDonagh ‘reminded us we were standing on historic ground in Clontarf where Brian Boru had defeated the Danes in 1014. Easter was the time of the battle of Clontarf. The battle was on Good Friday. Good Friday and Easter were coming near, and that was the time of resurgence in Ireland.’ No doubt McDonagh, Daly and others firmly believed Clontarf to be a part of their nationalist heritage.

Donal Fallon is co-author of Come here to me: Dublin’s other history (New Island Books, 2012).

Read More: Dublin City Hall murals


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