The Battle of Clontarf in Irish history and legend

Published in Features, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 13

Brian Boru, high king of Ireland, blesses his troops before the Battle of Clontarf, 1014—one of James Ward’s early twentieth-century frescos in Dublin’s City Hall. (Dublin City Council)

Brian Boru, high king of Ireland, blesses his troops before the Battle of Clontarf, 1014—one of James Ward’s early twentieth-century frescos in Dublin’s City Hall. (Dublin City Council)

‘Clontarf was too important to be left to the historians, so passed into the legend-maker’s hand’

(Gwyn Jones, A history of the Vikings [London, 1973]).

‘The men of Ireland will suffer a grief that will never grow old in the minds of men’
(Valkyries’ prophecy, Njál’s saga, §157, tr. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson [Harmondsworth, 1960]).

The Battle of Clontarf pitched the forces of the Munster over-king Brian Boru and his allies against the armies of north Leinster, Dublin, and Viking mercenaries and allies from across the sea. Brian has been seen as a paragon of Christian leadership, who struggled against all odds to rid Ireland of the perils of conquest by pagan Vikings. He won the battle, but made the ultimate sacrifice in losing his life while praying for victory.

Like all good stories, this stereotypical account of the battle is a blend of fact and fiction. Clontarf was undoubtedly a significant event. Nevertheless, the celebration of this event in literature, over the centuries, is a fascinating topic in its own right. We can perceive in accounts of the battle how national identities are developed through historical myths, the sense of a shared past, and the development of common hopes for the future. As political developments bring different national interests to the fore, so historical narratives are often remoulded to suit current affairs.

Historical background

The Viking fleet lands at Dubh Linn, 795. (Dublin City Council)

The Viking fleet lands at Dubh Linn, 795. (Dublin City Council)

The Battle of Clontarf is a key event in the history of the Vikings in Ireland, as well as the final chapter in the dramatic career of Brian Boru. In traditional accounts, Vikings are viewed as bloodthirsty pagan raiders. More recently they tend to be cast in a more positive light, as entrepreneurs who brought a new element to Irish cultural life. Both perspectives contain elements of truth. Vikings had plagued the Irish coasts since the end of the eighth century, and they began settling shortly after. By the late tenth century their power was restricted to a handful of ports, of which Dublin, Waterford and Limerick figure most prominently in the sources. These towns were ruled by kings whose squabbles with each other figure as prominently as their battles with Irish neighbours. By the time of the Battle of Clontarf, there was a long history of intermarriage between Viking and Irish dynasties that facilitated cultural exchange, alliances and trade across political boundaries. Viking kings in Ireland had converted to Christianity and gave patronage to some churches while raiding others under the control of their enemies. Despite the limited nature of their political power in Ireland, Vikings maintained a distinctive identity. Their fleets and armies were still effective in war, and merchants from the Viking ports maintained a network of trading contacts overseas. Perhaps it is not surprising that some of the most powerful Irish kings were anxious to control the economic and military resources of Viking ports to forward their wider political ambitions.

One such king was Brian Boru. Brian belonged to the Dál gCais of north Munster. This people had risen to local prominence during the reign of Brian’s father, Cennétig, and his brother, Mathgamain. From the beginning of his reign Brian vigorously pursued his ambition to become the over-king of Munster; having succeeded in that, he then sought to extend his sway over neighbouring provinces. Ironically, one factor that aided Brian’s rise to power was the support of Viking fleets and fighting men. In 977 Brian had killed Ívarr, king of Limerick, and his two sons in the monastery of Scattery Island. This effectively brought Limerick under his control. In 984 Brian then allied himself with Waterford and the Vikings of the Isle of Man against Dublin. Thus he benefited from rivalries between different Viking groups.

Vikings fought alongside the men of Munster in Brian’s campaigns to extend his influence across southern Ireland. In 997 Maelsechlainn, the Uí Néill over-king of Mide (Meath), was forced to concede Brian’s authority in the south. Until this time the Uí Néill dynasties had been the dominant force in Irish politics, but their position was now under threat. Brian’s victory over the troops of Dublin and Leinster at the Battle of Glenmama in 999 gave him the confidence to tackle the power of Maelsechlainn head-on. He led a series of campaigns aimed at getting his authority recognised across the whole of Ireland. He had barely achieved this aim when the forces of Dublin and Leinster renewed their war against him, and this led directly to the Battle of Clontarf.

Early records

Gaia, which visited Dublin in July 2005, is an exact replica of the 1000-year-old Gokstad, excavated in Norway in 1880 and said to contain the remains of Olav Geirstadalv, the first Viking king of Dublin. (Vestfold Fylkeskommune)

Gaia, which visited Dublin in July 2005, is an exact replica of the 1000-year-old Gokstad, excavated in Norway in 1880 and said to contain the remains of Olav Geirstadalv, the first Viking king of Dublin. (Vestfold Fylkeskommune)

Perhaps the most reliable accounts of the Battle of Clontarf are to be found in Irish chronicles. A number of these survive from the Middle Ages, but more work is needed on their textual development. The Annals of Inisfallen, the Chronicum Scotorum and the Annals of Ulster contain descriptions of the battle that appear to be based on a contemporary report (but it is just possible that these were tinkered with at a later date). The records of Clontarf found in the Annals of Boyle, the Annals of Clonmacnoise and the Annals of Loch Cé bear the stamp of later legends. These annals can be compared to determine what actually happened. They can also be judged against records from Wales and the Continental chronicles of Ademar of Chabannes and Marianus Scotus, although these also have their faults.

Nevertheless, our sources are broadly in agreement on key features of the conflict. On one side of the field stood Brian’s army, which consisted of the men of Munster, some troops from Connacht (including Uí Maine and Uí Fhiachrach) and a contingent led by the mormaer of Marr in Scotland. The Munster armies may have included Vikings from Waterford and Limerick. It is a matter of contention whether Maelsechlainn and the men of Mide also participated in the conflict, but on balance I think it likely that they did (more on this below). On the other side of the field were arrayed the Viking troops of Dublin, under the leadership of Sigtrygg Oláfsson, and the Irish of the hinterland to the south, under Maelmorda mac Murchada. They were supported by Sigurd, earl of Orkney, and his men, a contingent of warriors from the Hebrides, and a mercenary fleet (which may have included Scandinavian warriors) led by Brodir.
The battle was of long duration, with heavy casualties on both sides. Brian’s side was victorious, but Brodir killed him. The story that Brian was slain while at prayer first appears in the chronicle that Marianus Scotus wrote in Germany over half a century after the battle. It may or may not be true.

The wide range of records of the Battle of Clontarf is one index of its significance, but what was the impact of this struggle? The power of Dublin had been on the wane from the late tenth century, and Clontarf was one of a series of major defeats. In 980 Maelsechlainn had defeated the Vikings of Dublin at Tara, and in 999 Brian crushed their forces at Glenmama. While the Vikings of Dublin continued to be politically active after the Battle of Clontarf (they attacked Kells in 1019, for example), Brian’s reign heralded greater exploitation of Viking towns by Irish rulers. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries Viking rulers increasingly became the minions of powerful Irish kings. Clontarf may be perceived as a stage in the decline of Viking power in Ireland.

In terms of power-struggles between Irish rulers, Clontarf did not secure the future of Brian’s descendants as over-kings of Ireland. After Brian’s death Maelsechlainn once again became the most important over-king in Ireland, and after his death there was a struggle for supremacy among the provincial over-kings. When the descendants of Brian rose to eminence again at the end of the eleventh century, they celebrated their famous ancestor in literature to help justify their claims to dominate Ireland.

Literary developments

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries a genre of propaganda literature developed that celebrated historic Irish victories over Vikings. Through negative portrayals of foreigners, these stories provided a justification for Viking ports to be brought under Irish rule. They also promoted an enhanced sense of Irish identity, which can be linked to the struggles of over-kings to impose their authority across the island. One of these stories, ‘The War of the Irish and the Foreigners’ (Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh), focuses on the victory of Brian at Clontarf. This saga was written for Muirchertach Ua Briain, great-grandson of the hero, between 1103 and 1113. It was the archetype for the development of many later legends about Clontarf.
Events at Clontarf were also celebrated in Norse literature. The most famous account is found in the thirteenth-century Icelandic Njáls saga, but shorter descriptions appear in other sagas. These stories intertwine history and drama. They reflect an interest in Gaelic affairs that resulted from the Icelanders’ knowledge that many of their ancestors had originally come from the Hebrides and Ireland. Because the sagas share details in common with Irish stories, it is thought that their authors had access to an Irish written source, or that a Norse saga about Brian Boru was composed in Ireland or Scotland in the eleventh century and then circulated in Viking colonies farther afield.

During the later Middle Ages, Brian’s victory at Clontarf continued to be celebrated in Irish bardic poetry, particularly because the island was troubled by another set of foreigners, the English. (It is noteworthy that the term often used for the English was Gaill, ‘foreigners’, the same as that used for the Vikings.) Some expressed hope that another king like Brian might rise up to crush the foreign oppressors. As circumstances worsened for the Irish during the seventeenth century, there was a flurry of prose writing about Brian Boru, perhaps to inspire or comfort people during troubled times. The tale known as Cath Chluana Tarbh (‘The Battle of Clontarf’) was the most popular, and this coloured later narratives. One such narrative was ‘The Dublin Annals of Inisfallen’, written in the eighteenth century for John O’Brien, bishop of Cloyne and Ross and a descendant of the victor of Clontarf.

Over the centuries fictional elements have been added to accounts of the Battle of Clontarf. These include the introduction of magical and supernatural occurrences, for it was often believed in the Middle Ages that great events were heralded by strange wonders and prophecies. In addition, the numbers that participated in the battle grew with successive retellings. Characters also became greater or more evil, depending on whose side they were on. Thus the foreigners became more outrageously horrible, and Brian was more frequently (but not always) praised as Ireland’s greatest hero. Each of these narrative developments added to the dramatic impact of the Clontarf story.

Supernatural events

Nineteenth-century engraving of Viking warrior Brodir about to slay Brian Boru while he is kneeling in prayer.

Nineteenth-century engraving of Viking warrior Brodir about to slay Brian Boru while he is kneeling in prayer.

The most entertaining literary development in the battle narratives is the addition of supernatural or magical acts. In Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh the arrows of the Vikings are anointed with the blood of toads and dragons. Witches and demons wait greedily with birds of prey on the battlefield to claim the dead as their booty, and a sharp cold wind blows clots of blood into the faces of the warriors. One of the most memorable wonders is found in Njáls saga. On the day of the conflict a traveller in Caithness (Scotland) comes across a place in which three valkyries are weaving a cloth of human entrails. Their loom is weighted with human heads, and swords and arrows are used to run and beat the threads together. As they work, the valkyries chant their prophecy of doom. Supernatural visitors appear in many of the Irish accounts to foretell the death of individual warriors. Most commonly Oebhinn or Aibhell, banshee of the royal house of Munster, is the bearer of this news.

Polarisation of characters

Another feature in literary accounts of the Battle of Clontarf is the way in which characters become more extreme. This is a standard element in dramas where a conflict between good and evil is part of the plot (examples abound in modern soap-operas, for example). One character condemned over time was Gormfhlaith, wife of Brian. She does not appear in the earliest accounts of the battle. However, in Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh she helps goad her brother, the over-king of Leinster, into initiating hostilities against Brian. The account is repeated in later narratives, including Cath Chluana Tarbh and Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn. In Njáls saga she is the spiteful beauty who helps her son Sigtrygg, king of Dublin, to gain military support against Brian from outside Ireland. While Gormfhlaith has become a figure of legend, there is little reliable information to indicate what sort of person she really was.

Maelsechlainn is another figure worsted in literary accounts. The Annals of Ulster and the Chronicum Scotorum indicate that the Uí Néill over-king participated in the battle. However, in Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh Maelsechlainn withdraws his support from the battle, and in later accounts (Cath Chluana Tarbh, Foras Feasa) he meets the Vikings of Dublin before battle to advise them to attack. Thus Maelsechnlainn turns from accomplice to traitor. One reason for this may be that Brian’s eulogisers did not want the over-king of the Uí Néill to share in any of the limelight, so they chose to damn him instead.

Demonisation of the Vikings

Vikings were a fairly easy target for criticism in our narratives. By the time of the Battle of Clontarf the Vikings already had a long history in the European literary imagination as bloodthirsty barbarians. In literary accounts of the Battle of Clontarf the number of Vikings opposed to Brian generally increases over time, and they are portrayed as evil oppressors who threatened to destroy Ireland. Needless to say, the impression given in literature that the odds were stacked against Brian was another way of highlighting his achievements. From the seventeenth century, descriptions of the woes imposed on Ireland by the Vikings are given a contemporary ring, as people compared the impact of one group of foreigners with another.

Glorification of Brian

Group photo of the Markland Medieval Militia following their re-enactment of the Battle of Clontarf in April 1984.

Group photo of the Markland Medieval Militia following their re-enactment of the Battle of Clontarf in April 1984.

Another feature of seventeenth-century accounts (but a feature ultimately derived from Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh) was the portrayal of Brian’s reign as a ‘golden age’. During his years in power the political and natural world were shown to work in harmony. Brian was portrayed as a patron of justice, education, and of building works that benefited his subjects. These idealistic images obscure the brutal realities of Brian’s time in power, when warfare was employed almost continuously to quell those who opposed him.

Portrayals of Brian in the battle tend to make him look either heroic or saintly. Owing to his advanced years, it is unlikely that he played an active role in combat. In Cogadh Brian instead prays for victory, and chants psalms in his tent while the battle rages. Brian therefore fights the battle on a spiritual level. In Njáls saga he takes on a more saintly role, and two miracles are recorded after his death. Nevertheless, Brian is not shown as entirely passive. In Cogadh and Cath Chluana Tarbh he rises from prayer, sword in hand, to engage in single combat with his killer, Brodir. Brian gets his blow in first before succumbing to his opponent’s axe. His heroic and saintly credentials are also combined in ‘The Dublin Annals of Inisfallen’, where he incites his troops before battle, sword in one hand and crucifix in the other.

Despite these favourable accounts, some commentators lamented the evil consequences of Brian’s ‘usurpation’ of the authority of Uí Néill, which was seen to bring political chaos after Maelsechlainn’s death in 1022. Nevertheless, others vigorously defended their hero against such accusations. In Foras Feasa, Geoffrey Keating argued that Maelsechlainn was initially a slothful and ineffective king, and that Brian was called to lead Ireland by other Irish kings during their time of need. While literary accounts of Brian Boru do not uniformly seek to praise him, he was increasingly celebrated as a national hero, and that is often how he is still remembered today.

Modern interpretations

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, romantic nationalism came to the fore in Irish literature and political thinking. The Battle of Clontarf had long been a rallying point in developing perceptions of nationhood, and the conflict was celebrated (somewhat inaccurately) as a struggle by the people of Ireland against foreign domination. It is significant that Daniel O’Connell planned a mass meeting at Clontarf in 1843 to oppose British rule, following that held at Tara. The gathering was banned by Prime Minister Robert Peel, who no doubt feared the strong sentiments that might be aroused by O’Connell’s eloquence at such a site. In these centuries dramas were also written which fêted Brian’s life and victory (for example J.S. Knowles, Brian Boroihme [sic] (London, c. 1885); J. B. Dollard, Clontarf: an Irish national drama (Dublin, 1920)).

Alongside, but often in contrast with, the Romantic movement in literature, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed a drive towards more scientific enquiry into historical writings. Efforts were increasingly made by scholars to separate fact from fiction in narratives about the Viking wars in Ireland. One significant example of this is John Ryan’s article, cited below.

Perhaps as a consequence of critical historical approaches, political concerns and a fashion for revisionism, one tendency since the late nineteenth century has been to downplay the significance of the Battle of Clontarf. The conflict has sometimes been construed as a domestic rebellion that had little bearing on the power of the Vikings in Ireland. Furthermore, the Uí Néill could be seen to quickly reassert their power after Brian died, even if their renewed hegemony was short-lived. Other historians have continued to assert the importance of the contest as a decisive moment in Ireland’s history. No doubt these contrasting perspectives will continue to be expressed, with varying levels of subtlety, in future debates.

Aside from academic speculation, the Battle of Clontarf still has a hold on popular imagination. Search for Clontarf on ‘Google’ and you will find battle-plans for war-gaming, and images of re-enactors. This testifies to the popularity of this event among those seeking to celebrate and relive the glories of the past without its bloodshed or sorrows. Historical and legendary accounts of the Battle of Clontarf, as with any other great event, reflect the power of ideals to shape perceptions of the past.

Clare Downham is a lecturer in Celtic at the University of Aberdeen.

Further reading:

B. Hudson, ‘Brjáns saga’, Medium Ævum 71 (2002).

M. Ní Mhaonaigh, ‘Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib: some dating consider-ations’, Peritia 9 (1995).

M. Ní Urdail, ‘Annala Inse Faithleann an ochtú céad déag agus cath Chluana Tarbh’, Eighteenth Century Ireland 20 (2005) [forthcoming].

J. Ryan, ‘The Battle of Clontarf’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 68 (1938).


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