The real life of Brian Boru

As the 1000th anniversary of Brian Boru’s death approaches, Robert Hume attempts to separate fact from fiction in the Munster king’s momentous battle against the Vikings of Leinster.

TO THE DEATH: TG4's two-part documentary on the Battle of Clontarf ('Cluain Tarbh') screens tonight, and tomorrow night, at 7.30pm.Picture: Courtesy TG4
TO THE DEATH: TG4's two-part documentary on the Battle of Clontarf ('Cluain Tarbh') screens tonight, and tomorrow night, at 7.30pm.Picture: Courtesy TG4

ONE thousand years ago, on Good Friday 1014, the Battle of Clontarf was fought just outside Dublin. But how much of what we think we know about the battle is true?

“No battle in Irish history has impressed itself more deeply on the national imagination,” concluded historian John Ryan in 1938.

An internet search for “Battle of Clontarf” generates nearly three-quarters of a million results, including a “hack and slash” war game, and a festival trailer backed by the theme to The Last of the Mohicans.

Yet facts about the battle are sparse. Nobody doubts that Clontarf was fought on foot, and was very bloody. On one side stood King Brian Boru’s army from Munster; on the other were men from Leinster and Dublin. Most of the leaders on both sides died.

The rest is shrouded in myth.

Firstly, what was the battle all about? The contemporary chronicler Adémar of Chabannes was convinced it was an invasion attempt by the heathen Vikings, who had brought their families with them and meant to settle.

The 12th century Irish saga Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh (“The War of the Irish with the Vikings”) agrees that Brian was up against a full-scale attack. But the saga is a romantic biography of Brian, commissioned by his descendants to inspire the crushing of a new enemy — the English.

Reality was less simple. Viking and Irish families shared a long history of intermarriage. Many Vikings were now Christian and had fought alongside Brian in the past; indeed, his army at Clontarf may have included Vikings from Limerick and Waterford.

This led John Ryan to reject the idea that Clontarf was a battle between Irish and Norse; the historian downgraded it to an internal rebellion by the King of Leinster, who was bent on preventing Brian extending his power northwards.

Seán Duffy, in his new book Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf, reappraises this view, and maintains that the main problem was instead the Norse king of Dublin, Sitriuc Silkenbeard, whose defeat by Brian at Glenn Máma in 999 left him determined to regain control of his city with Danish help. Brian’s main enemies, argues Duffy, were indeed the Vikings.

What happened when the Vikings landed at Clontarf beach? The Cogadh contrasted their “polished, strong, triple-plated, glittering armour” with the Irish “shirts of thin satin”, and states the battle began with single combat between Domnall from Brian’s army and Plait from the Viking-Leinster army, who ended up killing each other. But no other source corroborates this.

The Irish saga goes on to describe the battle colourfully. The Vikings’ arrows “had been anointed in the blood of dragons and toads”. A cold wind blew hair and clots of blood into the warriors’ faces, showers of sparks rose from swords, while witches waited with birds of prey to claim the dead.

The total strength of both sides probably did not exceed 5,000 men. But with successive retellings the number of Vikings grew, making Brian’s victory more for the bards to celebrate. Whereas the Cogadh refers to 2,000 rebels, the 15th century Annals of Ulster claims there were 6,000 “mail-coated foreigners”.

Eventually, the Munster warriors gained the upper hand. The Vikings and Leinster men fled, and were either drowned or massacred. It was Brian’s finest hour. The Cogadh claimed (incorrectly) that he had banished the evil Vikings from Ireland.

But victory came at a price. Brian was attacked and killed by the Norse commander Bródir.

The battle had lasted, according to one writer, “most of the morning”; though Chabannes says it caried on for “three days without interruption”. Most writers believe it lasted one day. The Cogadh states “from one tide to another”, which is supported by the Irish geologist Samuel Haughton who in 1861 made a detailed study of the tides and concluded that on the day of the battle it was high tide at 5.30am and again at 5.55pm.

In the highly entertaining 16th century Annals of Loch Cé, we are treated to an exotic mix of foreign combatants – including Welshmen, a Flemish knight, even Roman merchants.

In the popular imagination, Brian himself fought. But the Annals of Inisfallen, compiled soon afterwards at Emly monastery where Brian’s brother had been abbot, cast him in a more saintly role — as a great Christian king encouraging his troops before battle, sword in one hand, crucifix in the other. It is his son, Murchad — the last man in Ireland, we are told, who could brandish two swords — that commanded Brian’s army. Others maintain Brian kept away from the battle altogether, staying in his tent because it was a holy day; or because he was too old — anything from 73 to 90.

Prophesies foretold the outcome. Swords leaping from their sheaths signified the Vikings’ defeat. The bearer of Sigurd the Stout’s raven banner would be killed. A fairy-woman who visited Brian the night before the battle told him he would die. Many leaders were killed. As for the troops, Chabannes reckoned: “not one Northman survived”. The Ulster annalist agreed that all 6,000 foreigners were killed or drowned, compared with 4,000 Irishmen. But the Cogadh claims 1,600 died on Brian’s side.

Exactly how Brian died remains a mystery. In Njáls saga Brian’s killer, Bródir, was hiding in the woods, waiting to attack him when his bodyguards left his tent; but in the Cogadh one of Bródir’s men needed to point Brian out. The Icelandic saga says Bródir cut off Brian’s head, also the arm of a boy protecting him; whereas the Irish saga has Brian rising from his prayers to cut off Bródir’s right foot and left leg, and kill his accomplice, before eventually Bródir’s axe fell, making Brian a martyr to the Irish cause.

Everyone agrees that Bródir was captured and executed. But only Njáls saga describes how the Irish apparently “split open his belly, led him round and round an oak tree, and unwound all his intestines”.

This blending of fact and fiction makes it difficult to decide what exactly happened at Clontarf. Writers have often recorded what they wanted us to believe occurred. But this much is undeniable: the stories they spun — about good and evil; native and foreign; Christian and heathen — have been powerful influences on later generations. A thousand years after Clontarf, the myths are very much alive.

How we're remembering the battle

* Clontarf 1014, an exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin (April-December).

* Viking longboats on the lake at Loughall Country Park, with rowing and sailing sessions for families, warrior weapon-training, and mock battles (April 24).

* A heritage trail from the promenade at Clontarf (from March 28).

* A battle re-enactment at St Anne’s Park, Raheny, Dublin, (April 19 and 20).

* A suite, composed by Michael Rooney, celebrating the life of Brain Boru, National Folk Orchestra Ireland, Cashel, Co Tipperary (April 24).

* A film on the life of Brian Boru, O’Brien Turret, Dromoland Estate, Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare (April 18).

* TG4 documentary ‘The Battle of Clontarf’ (April 18 and 19 at 7.30pm).



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