Clontarf refought

1014: Brian Boru and the Battle for Ireland, by Morgan Llywelyn (O’Brien Press, €11.99 / £10.99)

J. Anthony Gaughan

This is a welcome addition to the literature prompted by the millennial anniversary of the battle of Clontarf. 

Novelist Morgan Llywelyn’s book provides a most readable account of the famous battle.  To this end the author has simplified the complexities surrounding the loyalties of those engaged in the battle and much more besides.  While this may invite the critical eye of historians and scholars, the author brings to life as never before the battle of Clontarf and the circumstances surrounding it.

Vikings were represented on both sides of the battle lines at Clontarf.  From the end of the 8th Century these Scandinavians had conducted murderous raids on the coastal areas of Ireland.  Eventually they established substantial settlements at Carlingford, Dublin, Wexford, Waterford and Limerick. 

Thence they formed alliances with some local tribes and fought with others.  By 1014 they were a significant component of the then population of Ireland.  Morgan Llywelyn provides insightful pen pictures of their leaders in 1014 and of the Viking overseas contingents who came to their aid at the battle of Clontarf.

These pen pictures are dwarfed by the author’s account of Brian Boru, the chief protagonist at the battle. On the death of his older brother in 976 he assumed leadership of the Dal Cais who had become a dominant political force in Thomond (North Munster). After a series of military campaigns he became king of the province and eventually high-king of Ireland, when three-quarters of Ireland paid him homage. 

An able administrator and a patron of the Church and of learning, he was accorded the title ‘Emperor of the Irish’ by his secretary and this was duly recorded in the Book of Armagh.

Some of Brian’s vassals were not content with his role as high king; and none more so than the king of Leinster and the Norse in Dublin. Brian mustered an army of his Dal Cais followers, with additional levies from South Munster and South Connacht, and marched against theses opponents. The campaign ended with the battle at Clontarf.

Female interest

The author claims that the success of the ‘Irish’ was due to Brian’s superior military strategy. She suggests that he carefully chose the location for the battle close to the entry of the Tolka and the Liffey into Dublin Bay. Thus on landing from their long-ships the Norsemen found themselves facing Brian’s army above the shore at Clontarf.  However, more evidence than she adduces is required to validate this theory and her reconstruction of the battle itself. 

Llywelyn does not neglect the female interest. She records that Brian was nothing if not uxorious. He had four wives. For a period he was married to two wives, one in accordance with Christian ritual, the other under Brehon law. 

The latter was the thrice-married Gormfhlaith. Llywelyn describes her as a beautiful princess but, showing no ‘sisterhood’ feelings, continues that marriage to her was “like trying to sail a small boat in a tempest…”.  If there was no conspiracy afoot to keep her entertained, she concocted one! 

By a curious coincidence she was with her son Sitric Silkenhead, Norse king of Dublin, and his wife, Emer, the daughter of Brian, when news came of the ‘Irish’ victory and Brian’s death at Clontarf. A family quarrel indeed!

This account of Brian Boru and the heroics of his followers at Clontarf could be much improved by more rigorous editing. There are too many digressions about superstitions to be found among the Norse and the Irish of those times. A number of irrelevant comments connecting places with present-day happenings could well be omitted. Yet it remains the most accessible narrative to date of one of the most famous battles in Irish history.


Clontarf 1,000

To mark the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf, public events have been organised by several national institution in Dublin.

National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin: Clontarf 1014: Brian Boru and the Battle for Dublin runs to then end of the year, supported by the permanent exhibitions Viking Ireland, and Medieval Ireland 1150-155;  Kildare Street, Dublin 2; Tuesday – Saturday: 10am – 5pm, Sunday: 2pm – 5pm, closed Mondays, and Christmas Day.

Long Room, Trinity College Dublin: Emperor of the Irish: Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf 1014; April to October; Monday – Saturday 9:30am – 5pm, Sunday (May – September) 9:30am – 4:30pm; Sunday (October – April) 12pm – 4:30pm.

Royal Irish Academy, Dawson Street, Dublin: Thursday, May 22 presents a special programme, consisting of two lectures, hosted respectively by the Embassies of Denmark and Norway in Ireland.: 12pm-12.45, Dr Anne Pedersen, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, ‘Power and Politics in late Viking-Age Denmark’; 12.45pm–1:30,  Jon Vidar Sigurdsson, NUI Maynooth, Norway and Iceland in the second half of the 13th century; 1:30pm–2, Questions and Answers.

These lectures are free of charge but must be booked in advance using the RIA online booking facility.]