Commemorating Clontarf

One of the bloodiest and most decisive battles in Irish history took place a thousand years ago this month.

'Battle of Clontarf' by Hugh Frazer, 1826. This painting has returned to Ireland in time for Clontarf 2014. Kildare Partners, DublinClontarf is now an affluent suburb north of Dublin, but a thousand years ago it was the setting for an unprecedented event in Ireland’s history. Good Friday 1014 saw the Battle of Clontarf, an all-day affair of infernal carnage, where longstanding animosities climaxed in a spectacular deluge of bloodshed.

To commemorate the anniversary, the Clontarf community is hosting a slew of diverse events that range from historical society lectures to a rugby match between Clontarf and the Barbarians FC. According to the website there will also be an interactive history display where visitors can see if they are mighty enough to wear the armour and carry the weapons of the 1014 combatants. There are walking tours that explore the old Viking Dublin as well as Brian Boru Millennium Celebration tours that take visitors to the very site where, by most accounts, the old leader was slain.

Dublin City Council will hold a Battle of Clontarf Festival on Easter Weekend (April 19th and 20th) at St Anne’s Park in Clontarf. This free festival will include many exhibitions as well as sword and archery sessions for participants of all ages. Each day will culminate in a 45-minute re-enactment of the battle, featuring hundreds of would-be warriors – including ones on horseback – appearing in an event billed as ‘the biggest living history battle re-enactment ever held in Ireland’.

It will be interesting to see the degree to which the Vikings are portrayed as the main enemy, as they often were in contemporary annals. On the other hand, modern historians tend to stress the Celt-on-Celt violence between high-king Brian Boru, ruler of Munster, and the rebel king of Leinster, Máelmórda mac Murchada.

One possible reason for the annals’ emphasis on the Viking enemy was religious. Though some Vikings had converted to Christianity, many remained heathen, which meant that the chroniclers tended to view the Battle of Clontarf as a triumph for Christianity in Ireland. Another reason for stressing Viking hostility was that the annals were composed by monks, whose monasteries were the primary targets of Viking pillage. Clontarf 1014 was painted as such a nationalistic struggle for Ireland that it became the medieval equivalent of the Easter Rising of 1916, according to Seán Duffy, author of the recently published Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf (Gill and Macmillan), not least because of the fact that it took place on Good Friday, with all its associations of Christian martyrdom.

Adding to the drama of Clontarf was the fact that Brian Boru died during the battle (though he was almost certainly not an active combatant). Even Norse writers waxed lyrical over him: ‘Brjánn fell ok helt velli’ (Brian fell and was victorious). His victory and martyr-like death made him a national hero, celebrated for having trumped the Vikings in this struggle for Ireland’s destiny. The narrative of Brian Boru’s life and death sounded compelling, so the poets and chroniclers went with it and it is the harp of Brian Boru that became and remains Ireland’s national symbol.

There has long been disagreement over how Brian Boru died. Some said that he was killed in hand-to-hand combat. This is unlikely, though, as he was at least in his mid-60s by the time of Clontarf. The more probable account (and the one to which Brian Boru’s biographer Duffy subscribes) is that the old king was killed in his tent, where he sat waiting for the battle’s end, when he was discovered by a fleeing Viking mercenary.

This assailant has been identified as Brodir, a commander of the Vikings on the Isle of Man. He was unable to savour the assassination for long, as he was reportedly tracked down and slaughtered by the day’s end. Interestingly, Brodir had a brother named Ospak, who actually fought on Brian Boru’s side. It is uncertain if Ospak was, like his brother, a mercenary; he sacrificed much in the battle, as he was not only injured but he also suffered the loss of two sons. In this last respect he shared something with the fallen Brian Boru, one of whose sons also died at Clontarf.

A thousand years later, this one-time venue of wrath and fury is now a site of commemoration and – for some – prayer. The anniversary day of April 23rd will feature an ecumenical service to commemorate the lives cut short on both sides.

Ray Cavanaugh is a historian of medieval Ireland.

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