When 2014 rolls around it will be the anniversary of momentous events. It will be the centenary of the start of World War I and the thousand-year anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf. Accounts of this battle are still taught in primary schools in Ireland, the name of Brian Boru is known by most Irish people and the account of how he defeated the Vikings and saved Ireland is part of our national mythology. I think the reality of what happened is a bit more complex so I’ll try and give a description of the events and a bit of fanciful analysis at the end.
In the late 900’s there were many Vikings in Ireland, but there was not a case of Viking domination or a threat of imminent Viking invasion. Viking simply means “someone on an expedition” and respectable men in Norway, Denmark and Iceland would go on “Viking” expeditions to raid and trade or serve as mercenarie . So Vikings were not an ethnic group per se but as it is common usage I will use it to describe those of Scandinavian origin who lived or fought for states ruled by those who were also of Scandinavian origin.
Many Scandinavians decided to settle in the lands they originally raided. They set up coastal cities and towns in Ireland in places like Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. The initial setting up of these kingdoms was done in a warlike fashion, as they subjugated the original inhabitants but once the kingdoms were set up the new arrivals were quite happy to trade with the Irish inland kingdoms. Often they went to war but the Irish kingdoms (and pretty much every other European kingdom at the time) fought each other perpetually so the Viking raids were normal. Monasteries were attacked by the Vikings for plunder but monasteries were also attacked by the Irish on a much more frequent basis and were occasionally burned down by the armed forces of other monasteries. So Ireland was not in the thrall of the Vikings. The danger caused by the Dublin Vikings had been crushed thirty-four years before the Battle of Clontarf by the High King Mael Sechnaill in the Battle of Tara. Many of the Vikings had in fact learned to speak Irish and are more correctly referred to as Hiberno-Norse.
At the time Ireland was not a single state and was divided up into a number of kingdoms, as illustrated by the picture displayed that is blatantly ripped from Wikipedia. Brian Boru came from a small tribe called the Dalcassians. These had a power base around Clare and through good alliances and tactics came to assume a dominant position in Connaught and Munster by controlling the city of Limerick (a Viking town) and controlling the southern reaches of the Shannon River. In the year 1002 AD Brian Boru outmanoeuvred the King of Meath, Mael Sechnaill, who was abandoned by his Ulster allies, and forced him to acknowledge Brian as High King instead of himself.
Brian Boru now set about consolidating his reign. He fought an inconclusive campaign in Ulster (the northern part of Ireland) that saw him use a navy extensively and he had earlier made an important dynastic marriage to the King of Leinster’s sister, Gormflaith and married his daughter to the king of Dublin Sitric Silkbeard. To complicate matters Gormflaith was also Sitric’s mother.
According to our sources a dispute arose between Brian and the King of Leinster, Mael Morda. Gormflaith had divorced Brian Boru and now was one of his enemies as well as the mother of one of his sons. Attempts to resolve the dispute failed and Brian mustered his armies. The forces of Munster and Connaught rallied to his call along with the Limerick Vikings. The armies of Meath under the previous High King (who understandably held a grudge against Brian) arrived but stayed firmly under the control of their own commander. The Ulster kings refused the summons.
Mael Morda, King of Leinster, rallied his own armies and the armies of his Dublin allies but they did not have sufficient troops to face the High King. So they sent a summons abroad desperately looking for troops. To sweeten the deal Sitric and Mael Morda offered the hand of Gormflaith in marriage to any kings or lords who answered the call. Mercenaries and Viking adventurers from abroad gathered at Dublin on Easter Sunday including the renowned Earl Sigurd of the Orkney Islands. Earl Sigurd’s forces were strengthened by the arrival of Icelandic outlaws and they held a supposedly magic banner of a raven that reputedly gave victory to any army that would carry it. Two mercenary Viking brothers, Brodir and Ospak and their armies were also hired from the Isle of Man. The story goes that Brodir had converted to Christianity but had recently reconverted to paganism, whereas his brother Ospak was a pagan shaman.
Brian’s armies advanced on Dublin, which was an urban centre and had to be held, whereas an attack the province of Leinster would have had no target that would force the enemy to fight. The armies of Munster and Connaught burned Howth and were within striking distance of Dublin but the mercenary reinforcements for the city had begun to arrive and Brian no longer had superiority. To make matters worse, Mael Sechnaill, the disgruntled ex-High King had withdrawn his sizeable forces from the camp and refused to fight. Without the reinforcements from Ulster the armies of the High King looked to be in trouble.
But at the last minute it appears that Ospak, the pagan shaman, abandoned his brother and his cause, converted to Christianity and brought his troops over to Brian’s side. The armies of Breifne (a kingdom that was roughly centred in the west of Cavan) arrived on the eve of battle and, according to some Irish sources; they brought with them a magic banner of their own that Brian's armies hoped would defeat the banner of the Orkneys.
Both armies now had around seven thousand men each, heavily armed, but under commanders with extremely varying motivations. The armies of Leinster, Dublin and the Orkneys advanced against the High King’s forces on Good Friday on the 23rd of April in the year 1014.
I realise that this has been a long post. The next post on this subject can be found here.