Brian Ború, “A Singular Authority,” And the Battle of Clontarf

We’ve reached 2014, and as part of the many celebrations that will occur this year, we will be commemorating the Battle of Clontarf, where Brian Bóraimhe defeated an army of Vikings and Leinsterman trying to undermine his efforts to maintain a singular authority over all the men of Ireland.  Of course much has been made of this battle in Irish historiography and in the formation of Irish identity in the 19th century. Originally, perhaps as a result of the effective propagandising efforts of the author of Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, it was viewed as an Irish versus Viking affair, the struggle for national freedom against a foreign enemy.

Subsequent scholarship, however, has undermined its national significance, downplaying the threat that Vikings posed at the beginning of the 11th century, and that it was primarily about Brian asserting his overlordship, and a rebellion against those attempts, as opposed to a genuine attempt by Dublin Vikings and their Islander allies to reassert their position.

Seán Duffy’s new book, Brian Ború and the Battle of Clontarf, is in some respects a revision of the revisionism. Firstly, he reasserts the importance of Brian’s achievement. Not merely did he ride roughshod over the status quo, the first non-Eoghanacht king of Munster since the 5th century, the first non-Uí Néill (high-)King of Ireland ever. Before the rebellion that lead to Clontarf, Brian had the unprecedented distinction where every provincial king, as well as the kings of Bréifne, Ulaidh and Osraige, of Ireland had come into his house (i.e. had submitted to him). This seems to have involved Brian providing each with a tuarastal, literally a wage, but more akin to a movable fief, and receiving military service and tribute (mainly in the form of cattle, but silver, foodstuffs and billeting rights could also be included). There is evidence to suggest that Brian had officials in other provinces, maeir, in order to regularly collect his dues (although this was nothing peculiarly new).

Although Seán Duffy does characterise the actions of Maelmordha King of Leinster, and his nephew, Sitriuc Silkbeard king of Dublin which lead to Clontarf as a rebellion against Brian’s hitherto unchallengeable authority, he does recognise that even amongst contemporary annalists the battle of Clontarf was given national and international significance. The annalists describe Brian as leading the men of Ireland and Maelmordha and Sitriuc’s forces were frequently referred to as “Na Gaill” in brief. It seems too that the annalists, rather than say that Sitriuc supported his uncle, claim that the rebellion itself was at the instigation of the Dubliners.

Of course, on their own the Leinstermen and the Dubliners could not face down Brian’s forces, for which he could potentially draw on all corners of Ireland, however, the addition of Norse Islanders from the Western Isles and Orkney stiffened their resistance. This is quite similar to the situation in 1167 where Mac Murchadha, who could not challenge Ua Conchobhair in the field (the latter again could potentially drawn on all the polities of Ireland for his armies), looked abroad in order to maintain his independence.

The arrival of Norse mercenaries and allies of Sitriuc naturally evened out the playing field. Contemporary accounts suggest Sitriuc’s army, along with his Norse and Leinster allies, consisted of up 7,000 men, the majority of which being heavily armed Norse warriors. Of course, this may have initially been motivated by a desire to break Brian’s control over the country, however, a victory at Clontarf would have left them with a strong army with the only military force capable of challenging them decimated and in a shattered retreat. This is no small number, and Svein Forkbeard in England had demonstrated what a force of 10,000 Viking warriors could do even with a united, coherent and full armed enemy.  The situation in England also points to a potentially more disastrous outcome had a Norse victory at Clontarf occurred. The same year the Viking conquest of England had been undone with the death of Svein Forkbeard, leaving thousands of Viking warriors without an employer. These may have comprised a significant number of the Norse warriors at Clontarf anyway, but a Norse victory would have let the door open for such freebooters hoping to establish another Norse kingdom in the Isles, with less opposition. Indeed, one of the Norse sources for the battle, the Orkneyingasaga, suggest that Sigurd of Orkney, an former ally of Svein, had agreed to aid Sitriuc, king of Dublin with two conditions. The first, that he could marry Gormfhlaith, Maelmórdha’s sister, Sitriucc’s mother, and Brian and Maoilseachlainn of Midhe’s ex wife, and in some respects, an avatar for the sovereignty of Ireland, and secondly a kingdom in Ireland. Had Brian lost at Clontarf, it is possible a conquest along the same lines of Svein’s success in England, could have occurred.

It seems the probable that the battle of Clontarf could have been fought to prevent a partial Norse conquest of Ireland, but at the very least, victory, though pyrrhic, may have prevented a reassertion of Norse power in Ireland, something that seems to have been appreciated by contemporary accounts both at home and abroad.

We have quite an array of primary sources extent for the battle of Clontarf, for which we can include the Annals of Inisfallen, Chronicon Scottorum, and Annals of Ulster as native, near contemporary sources. The Chronicon Acquitainicum et FrancicumThe is the closest contemporary foreign source, from South-Western France, describing the events of the battle, in which it states, the King of Ireland died, but that the invading Norse armies were defeated. The Annals of Loch Cé, the Annals of Clonmacnoise, as well as the Welsh Brut, are later still, but describe interesting and complimentary elements of the battle, some elucidating earlier difficults or expanding or earlier allusions. Saga material, with which we must deal cautiously given its tendency to exaggerate and propagandise, is also extent and also seems to preserve a lot of traditions associated with the battle. The Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, which may have been composed within 50 years of the battle, may have used actual accounts of warriors who fought in the battle,, as well as annalistic material, in order to compile its narrative, but other sagas, such as Njals Sága and Orkneyingasaga, are unique in giving us the Norse angle, (though the former is very sympathetic to Brian) are thus very useful sources of information for how the battle was fought, and the fraught political circumstances which led to it.

For secondary sources on the battle I’d suggest Seán Duffy’s new work, “Brian Ború and the Battle of Clontarf” but Fr John Ryan S.J.’s essay “The Battle of Clontarf” found in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol 68 (1938) is also invaluable for establishing the historicity of the event, and confirming the events of the numerous accounts.

Riadach  1.1.2014

A page from the Book of Armagh, an important collection of religious texts compiled in the 9th and 10th century. In the bottom right corner of this folio, which describes the rights of the church of Armagh, there is an endorsement by one Mael Súthain, tutor and confessor of Brian Boraimhe – as he puts it, in sight of the latter (i.e. as his behest) who he describes as Imperator Scottorum, Emperor of the Irish, or even more cryptically, Emperor of the Irish and the Scots”.

Also being discussed at Politicalworld.org forum

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