Is the story of the Battle of Clontarf more fiction than fact?

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The Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh (The War of the Irish against the Foreigners) is considered one of the most important sources about the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. However, new research is suggesting the tale is based more on the Trojan War than on historical sources.

Battle of Clontarf

Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh of the University of Cambridge sets out his findings in an article that will be published later this year in the book Classical Literature and Learning in Medieval Irish Narrative. She sees the depiction of the battle, which this month underwent its 1000th anniversary, as more of a “pseudo-history” than a reliable account.

The Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh dates from the early 12th century. This saga details the life and battles of Brian Boru, an Irish King who fought against the Vikings. Although he was killed at the Battle of Clontarf, his army was victorious on the battlefield, severely eroding the political and military power held by the Vikings.

Brian’s great-grandson probably commissioned the work, which portrays the Irish king as a heroic figure. In her study Dr Ní Mhaonaigh found that the imagery, terminology and ideas draw inspiration from a range of earlier sources – in particular Togail Troí (The Destruction of Troy), an eleventh-century translation of a fifth-century account of the battle for Troy. The  Togail Troí is even found in the same manuscript as the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh.

“The casting of Clontarf as a national struggle in which the aged, holy Brian was martyred still defines what most people know about the battle, and it has probably endured because that was what numerous generations of Irish men and women wanted to read,” Dr Ní Mhaonaigh explained.

“Academics have long accepted that Cogadh couldn’t be taken as reliable evidence but that hasn’t stopped some of them from continuing to draw on it to portray the encounter. What this research shows is that its account of the battle was crafted, at least in part, to create a version of events that was the equivalent of Troy. This was more than a literary flourish, it was a work of a superb, sophisticated and learned author.”




While the story recounted in the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh has been a long viewed with pride in Ireland, many historians have been wary of relying on it as the main historical source for the events from the late 10th and early 11th century. In his book The Battle of Clontarf, Good Friday 1014 Darran McGettigan notes “these accounts are legendary and full of fantasy and folklore. They may contain accurate pieces of information but it is impossible to know which are legendary and which are factual.”

A few other sources, including Irish Annals and an Icelandic saga, also have accounts of the Battle of Clontarf. However, archaeological evidence from the battle has not been found. Ruth Johnson, a Dublin City Archaeologist, explained to IrishCentral that “There’s very little direct evidence of the actual battle itself. An antiquarian journal in the 18th century referenced the discovery of mass Viking graves with weaponry and human bones on Parnell Square. Potentially that is our only real link to the battle. Sadly, that’s lost to us because that was pre-archaeology and Georgians were the great developers. They cleared everything out to make way for their great squares and lay the houses out with cellars. Unfortunately that tantalizing glimpse is all we have.”

Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh finds that the true value of the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh is not as a historical source, but rather as evidence of how strong the literary tradition had developed in twelfth-century Ireland. “Whoever wrote this was operating as part of larger, learned European tradition,” she adds. “People should not see the fact that it is a fabricated narrative as somehow a slur against Brian, because what it really shows is that his descendants were operating at a cultural level of the highest complexity and order.”

Sources: University of Cambridge, IrishCentral

Sharan Newman