Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Battle of Clontarf: Part Three

This is the third blog post dealing with the Battle of Clontarf. Click here for the first post on the subject and here for the second. This post is really an explanatory one so check out the earlier ones for the story of the battle itself.

             I have taken certain creative liberties in telling the story and I have omitted a great deal to make it even vaguely of blog post length but I have tried to stick to the sources. There are four sources about the battle. Firstly there is a long document called the War between the Irish and Foreigners, which was probably written by Brian’s descendants with all the biases that this entails. Then there is the Icelandic saga about the Burning of Njal (Njal's Saga) that describes the battle and favours Brian, referring to him as “good King Brian” and describing him as a saint. Then there are the sagas of the Earls of Orkney, which contain a brief entry describing the battle in fairly neutral terms. Then there are the annals of the Irish monasteries that also contain records. None of these are particularly good sources per se, as they are either blatant propaganda or written about other subjects (or both) but this is history and we have to deal with the sources we have.

            One thing that I think is clear is that the tale taught in Irish primary schools, that Brian Boru threw the Vikings out of Ireland, is not really useful in understanding events. The man who threw the Vikings out of Ireland was relying on the Vikings of Limerick in his own army and the Viking Ospak from the Isle of Man. The “Viking” army was led by the Irish king of Leinster with a large Irish army and the Irish army of Meath only joined when the battle was nearly won (and the Irish Ulster armies didn’t bother showing.) A simple “us vs. them” scenario is simply not accurate.

            I think we may have bought into this legend because of later history, which can be seen as a struggle of Irish against foreign invaders (although that’s not an uncontested version by any means). The propaganda work written by Brian’s descendants also contains a lot of references to this theme but when you consider that (like most of our sources for the battle) it was written possibly a century after the events and was written by people trying to bring all of Ireland under their rule, you have to take this account with a grain of salt and scepticism. The fact that the Icelandic source Njal’s Saga rejoices so wholeheartedly over the outcome of the Battle of Clontarf (probably because the Orkney Vikings were not liked) shows that a simple traditional interpretation is probably wrong.

            The real motivations of the protagonists will never be known. Pride, status, dynastic marriage or advancement are all possible motivations for the players. But there is an intriguing entry in the Annals of Ulster (a monastic record) for the Battle of Clontarf (taken from a translation posted on Cork University website). It reads…

“Of the Irish moreover there fell in the counter-shock Brian son of Ceinnétig (Brian Boru), over-king of the Irish of Ireland, and of the foreigners and of the Britons, the Augustus of the whole of north-west Europe, and his son Murchad, and the latter's son, i.e. Tairdelbach son of Murchad,…”

The title given to him (Augustus of the whole of north-west Europe) is quite extraordinary and, although Celtic Studies scholars might correct me, seems to be unprecedented in the annals. This might suggest that those around Brian Boru and possibly Brian Boru himself, believed himself to be more than a High King but to be the founder of a real kingdom, an empire, that would control all of Ireland and possibly beyond. In and around 1000 AD Europe was undergoing a revival, there was a new Pope in Rome who was trying to reform the church, a new kingdom had been founded in Hungary. Rulers such as King Olaf Tryggvason in Norway or King Sweyn Forkbeard in Denmark were solidifying their kingdoms or forging empires abroad, while Hugh Capet in France and Otto III in Germany were strengthening their dynasties.

            It is a possibility that Brian Boru had caught this European vision of state-building, of a unified monarchy of a country that transcended the minor rivalries of the tribe and clan. So the Battle of Clontarf was a terrible defeat for Brian's vision, as his son and grandson passed away and his armies were too depleted to carry on his plans after his death. In this scenario, Mael Morda of Leinster could be seen as fighting for the traditional rights of the independence of the small kingdoms. This interpretation probably stretches beyond what was actually thought back then but, as stated earlier, we can never really tell these things conclusively.

            So when 2014 comes around and we celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of this event, don’t think of a simple battle of Irish against the Vikings. It was more like an internal Irish war with extensive mercenary involvement. But, if one feels like drawing a moral from it one could choose to think of it as an epic struggle between the forces of unity and diversity. Just remember that no one really won.

The primary sources for the battle can be viewed by clicking on the links below:



The names used throughout the text are somewhat arbitrary. Some of the common variants of the names are given here in case anyone is interested.

Brian Boru: Brian Bóruma or Brian Bóroimhe,
Sitric: Sigtrygg II Silkbeard Olafsson
Mael Morda: Máel Mórda mac Murchada 
Olaf I of Norway: Óláfr Tryggvason
Earl Sigurd of Orkney: Sigurd Hlodvisson