By Clare Downham
History Ireland, Vol. 13 No.5 (2005)
Introduction: The battle of Clontarf, fought on Good Friday (23 April) 1014, is one of the most famous events in Irish history. In this conflict the forces of the Munster over-king Brian Boru and his allies were pitched against the armies of north Leinster, Dublin, and viking mercenaries and allies from across the sea. The event has been popularly portrayed as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Brian has been regarded as a national hero, a ruler who rose from relative obscurity to unite Ireland briefly under his rule. He has been seen as a paragon of Christian leadership, who struggled against all odds to rid Ireland from the perils of conquest by pagan vikings. He won the battle, but made the ultimate sacrifice in losing his life while praying for victory.
Like all good stories, this stereotypical account of the battle is a blend of fact and fiction. Clontarf was undoubtedly a significant event. Nevertheless, the celebration of this event in literature, over the centuries, is a fascinating topic in its own right. We can perceive in accounts of the battle how national identities are developed through historical myths, the sense of a shared past, and the development of common hopes for the future. As political developments bring different national interests to the fore, so historical narratives are often remoulded to suit current affairs.
The battle of Clontarf is a key event in the history of vikings in Ireland as well as the final chapter in the dramatic career of Brian Boru. In traditional accounts, vikings are viewed as bloodthirsty pagan raiders. More recently they tend to be cast in a more positive light, as entrepreneurs who brought a new element to Irish cultural life. Both perspectives contain elements of truth. Vikings had plagued the Irish coasts since the end of the eighth century, and they settled shortly after. By the late tenth century, their power was restricted to a handful of ports, of which Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick figure most prominently in the sources. These were ruled by kings whose squabbles with each other figure as prominently as their battles with Irish neighbours. By the time of the battle of Clontarf, there was a long history of intermarriage between viking and Irish dynasties which facilitated cultural exchange, alliances and trade across political boundaries. Viking kings in Ireland had converted to Christianity and gave patronage to some churches, while raiding others under the control of their enemies. Despite the limited nature of their political power in Ireland, vikings maintained a distinctive identity. Their fleets and armies were still effective in war, and merchants from the viking ports maintained a network of trading contacts overseas. Perhaps it is not surprising that some of the most powerful Irish kings began to seek control the economic and military resources of viking ports to forward their wider political ambitions.
One such king was Brian Boru. Brian belonged to the Dál gCais of northern Munster. This people had risen to local prominence during the reign of Brian’s father (Cennétig) and his brother (Mathgamain). From the beginning of his reign, Brian vigorously pursued his ambition to become the over-king of Munster; having succeeded in that, he then sought to extend his sway over neighbouring provinces. One factor which aided Brian’s rise to power was the support of viking fleets and fighting men. In 977 Brian had killed Ívarr, king of Limerick and his two sons in the monastery of Scattery Island. This effectively brought Limerick under his control. In 984 Brian then allied with Waterford and the vikings of the Isle of Man against Dublin. Thus Brian benefited from rivalries between different viking groups.
Vikings fought alongside the men of Munster in Brian’s campaigns to extend his influence across southern Ireland. In 997 the Uí Néill over-king Maelsechlainn was forced to concede Brian’s authority in the south. Until this time, the Uí Néill dynasties had been the dominant force in Irish politics; but their position was now under threat. When Brian defeated the troops of Dublin and Leinster at the battle of Glenmama in 999, this gave him the confidence to tackle the power of Maelsechlainn head-on. Brian led a series of campaigns aimed at getting his authority recognised across the whole of Ireland. He had barely achieved this aim when the forces of Dublin and Leinster renewed their war against him, and this led directly to the battle of Clontarf.