Clontarf and After

Eleanor Hull
Clontarf and After

Things came to a climax in 1014, when on Good Friday from sunrise to sunset was fought, under the walls of the Danish fort of Dublin, the famous battle of Clontarf, in which Brian and many of his auxiliaries fell, but which ended in a defeat of the Danes so decisive that though they were not driven from Ireland they never again regained their former supremacy over the Irish people.

The battle of Clontarf is famous alike in Irish and Northern story. Of few battles have we so many independent accounts. Besides the long recital of the fight and the causes that led up to it in the Wars of the Gael with the Gall, we have a Norse account of the battle in Njal’s Saga and fragments of a separate saga called the Saga of Thorstein, Sidu Hall’s son, which is later than Njal’s Saga and quotes from it. Both may, as Vigfusson thinks, be parts of a lost Brian’s Saga. Were it not for these saga tales we should hardly have realized the importance of the battle from the Icelandic point of view.

The spark that started the conflagration was struck by a woman. It arose out of a family quarrel which quickly enlarged into a national struggle. Gormliath was the fiercest and most dreaded woman of her day. The saga says that “she was the fairest of women and the best gifted in everything that was not in her own power, but it was the talk of men that she did everything ill over which she had any power.” Her natural gifts were great, that is to say, but she did nothing with them but what was bad. Already when she comes into the story as wife of Brian Boromhe she had been married to two husbands, first to Olaf of the Sandal (Cuaran), by whom she became mother of Sitric Silkenbeard, the reigning king of the Dublin Danes, and later to King Malaughlan, who had handed her over to Brian, perhaps as part of the spoils of war or in token of their alliance, as was customary in those times.

These unions may have been all irregular. At the date of her death, which did not occur till 1030, when she must have been a very old woman, the annals speak of Gormliath’s “three leaps, which no woman shall ever take again, a leap at Dublin [to Olaf], a leap at Tara [to Malaughlan], a leap at Cashel of the goblets above all,” this last being in reference to her marriage with Brian. We find her at Kincora when our story opens, but there was no love lost between her and Brian, and she was busily engaged in stirring up against him her brother Maelmora, King of Leinster, who had always rendered the tributes exacted by Brian from Leinster with great ill-will. At the battle of Clontarf she is found back in Dublin, with her son Sitric, egging him on to the defeat of Brian. “So grim,” say the Northern sagas, “had she become against King Brian after parting with him that she would gladly have had him dead.”

A false move in a game of chess was the immediate cause of the outburst. Maelmora, who had come to Kincora to bring his tribute of ship-masts to Brian, was teaching Conang, a young lad, to play chess with Morrogh, Brian’s son. He advised a move which lost the game to Morrogh. Angry words arose. “It was thou that gavest advice to the foreigners at the battle of Glenmama by which they were defeated,” Morrogh said angrily. “I will give them advice again, and they will not be defeated,” retorted the King of Leinster.

Without taking leave of anyone, Maelmora departed next morning in a furious passion, and hardly had he returned home when he began to stir up the chiefs of his own province, declaring that he had received insult in the house of Brian. They declared for war, and were joined by the princes of Ulster, who were only too glad of an opportunity to throw off the unwelcome yoke of Brian. Great hosts began to assemble. Gormliath in Dublin was gathering a formidable alliance of Danes from the Orkneys and the Isle of Man to the aid of her son Sitric, whom she brought into the quarrel to support her brother Maelmora, and all over the country the stormclouds gathered.

A vivid account is given in Njal’s Saga of the arrival on Yule-night at the Orkneys of Sitric Silkenbeard’s heralds to demand aid from Sigurd the Stout, Jarl (or Earl) of Orkney, in his rising against Brian. Sigurd’s mother had been Audna, or Eithne, one of the daughters of Carroll (Cearbhal), King of Ossory, and he was familiar with affairs in Ireland, for he made constant viking expeditions there.

Eithne, who was something of a soothsayer or ‘wise woman,’ had on a former occasion shown her mettle when her son had hesitated to go on an expedition against a jarl in Scotland, on the ground that his enemy’s forces were seven to one: “Had I known that thou wouldst wish to live for ever,” she replied, “I should have reared thee up in my wool-bag. It is fate that rules life, and not the place where a man may go. It is better to die with honour than to live with shame.” She had woven for him the raven banner, which floated in the form of a bird over the host, and which brought Sigurd to his death at Clontarf. It was said to bring victory to him before whom it was borne, but death to him who carried it. Sigurd at first refused to go out against Brian, but the promise of the kingdom of Ireland if they slew King Brian, with the hand of Gormliath, Sitric’s mother, finally induced him to give his promise.

Gormliath, when she sent her son abroad to seek for help, had said to him, “Spare nothing to get them into thy quarrel; whatever price they ask, give it.” All those to whom he went conspired to say the same thing; when he went on from Orkney to interview the chiefs of two fleets of thirty viking ships lying off the Isle of Man, they also asked as their reward the kingdom of Ireland and the hand of Gormliath. Sitric at once promised, only stipulating that they should keep the terms a secret from Sigurd the Stout. He went home with the news that the pirates of Man and the Earl of Orkney would be prepared to join their forces to those of the Danes of Dublin and the Leinstermen by Easter time of the new year. No doubt the Danes in Ireland hoped for the foundation of a kingdom similar to that which King Sweyn Forkbeard of England (1013–14) was endeavouring to found between Britain and Denmark. But it was not destined that a Danish Canute should ever rule a united kingdom from Ireland.

The battle of Clontarf was fought on Good Friday, 1014. Brian and his forces marched on Dublin, burning all the way, so that the Norsemen when they arrived in Dublin Bay saw all the land one sheet of flame. The battle was fought on the north side of the river Liffey, on the low lands beside Clontarf, and up to the wooded country on the higher ground now known as Phœnix Park. Here, with the wood of Tomar behind them, the Irish forces were drawn up, facing the bay by which the Danish auxiliaries were landing from their ships.

On the south side of the river stood the Danish fort, from the height of which Sitric and Gormliath followed the course of the battle going on below them. Another spectator watched beside them. This was Sitric’s wife, who was Brian’s daughter, married to the chief of her country’s foes. Her feelings must have been a strange compound indeed of fear and hope. All day long the contest lasted, from high tide in the morning, when the foreign troops landed and beached their boats, to high tide at night, when they sought their boats’ in order to flee seaward. But the low tide of midday had carried the boats out to sea, and they had no place of retreat, seeing that they were cut off between the Bay and Dubhgall’s bridge on the one hand, and between it and Tomar’s wood on the other. They retreated to the sea “like a herd of cows from the heat of the sun, or pursued by gadflies.”

There they were cut off and lay dying in heaps and hundreds. To the watchers on the battlements of Dublin Castle it seemed all day like the reaping down of a field of oats. Sitric believed that it was his mercenaries who were gaining ground. “Well do the foreigners reap the field,” he said brutally to his wife, whose secret heart he knew to be with her countrymen; “many a sheaf do they cast from them.” “By the end of the day the result will be seen,” was her reply.

Later, when the terrible rout of the Danes on the shores of Clontarf was going on, Brian’s daughter had her revenge. “It seems to me,” she said, “that the foreigners have gained their patrimony. They are going to the sea, their natural inheritance. I wonder are they cattle, driven by the heat? But if they are, they tarry not to be milked.” The answer of her husband was a blow across the mouth. Close to the weir of Clontarf, where the river Tolka seeks the sea, Turlogh, the young grandson of Brian, pursued a flying Norseman across the stream. But the rising tide flung him against the weir, and, being caught on a post, he was drowned, still grasping the hair of the Norseman, who lay dead beneath him.

The age of Brian, who was seventy-three years old when the battle was fought, prevented him from taking a leading part in the fight. His tent was pitched at some distance behind the fighting hosts, on a slight height, from which the contest could be seen. He had, in any case, been unwilling to engage on Good Friday, and he remained all day from dusk to eve absorbed in prayer. A lad who tended him stood at the door of his tent and reported from time to time the ebb and flow of the battle.

Toward nightfall a viking chief from the Isle of Man, named Brodir, made his way to the tent. This Brodir bore an ugly character, even in the North. He had been a Christian, but, in the words of the saga, he had become “God’s dastard, and now worshipped pagan fiends and was of all men most skilled in sorcery.” He came up the hill with intent to kill Brian, for his wizard arts had told him that if the fight were on Good Friday, though Brian’s hosts would win the day, he himself would fall. Brian’s lad had just reported the disastrous news that the banner of Morrogh, Brian’s son, which led the Irish troops, had fallen, and he was in the act of endeavouring to induce Brian to mount his horse and fly, when Brodir entered the tent. Brian had refused to take refuge in flight, and was making his last bequests, still kneeling on his cushion, as he had knelt all day, with his psalter open before him. But as the blue-armoured foreigner rushed in he rose and unsheathed his sword.

Brodir passed him by, and noticed him not. One of his two followers had in former times been in Brian’s service, and he said, Cing, Cing, this is the King.” “No, no,” said Brodir, “but Prist (“it is a priest”). “By no means so,” replied the man; “this is the great King Brian.” Then Brodir turned, and swung his gleaming, double-bladed axe above Brian’s head. The old King made a cut at the ferocious viking with his sword, wounding his leg, and both fell together, Brian’s head being cleft through by the axe. Then Brodir stood up and with a loud voice exclaimed, “Now may man tell his fellow-man that Brodir hath felled King Brian.” But his triumph was shortlived; he was taken by the Munstermen and put to a horrible death on the spot.

The slaughter on that day was terrible. Hardly a leader on either side was left alive. Both Morrogh, Brian’s son, and Maelmora, King of Leinster, on the other side, were among the slain. Jarl Sigurd the Stout of Orkney fell, carrying the fatal raven’s banner under his cloak. A young Icelander of his bodyguard, as fearless as he was brave, took up his stand with a few others beside Tomar’s Wood, refusing to fly. When, seeing the rout, all beside him turned to run, Thorstein stooped down to tie his shoestring. An Irish chief, coming up at the instant, asked him why he did not fly with the others. “Because I am an Icelander,” said Thorstein, “and were I to run ever so fast I could not reach home to-night.” Struck by his coolness, the Irish chief set him at liberty, and Thorstein went to Munster with Brian’s sons, and was well beloved in Ireland. When, a week later, Hrafn the Red, one of Sigurd’s men, returned to Orkney, having escaped with his life, he was asked by Jarl Flosi, “What hast thou to tell me of my men?” Hrafn could make no reply other than, “They all fell there.”

Considerable differences are to be observed in the accounts of the battle as to the part taken in it by King Malaughlan. A long Munster report, put into Malaughlan’s own mouth, says that he was so horrified by the storm and contest of the battle that he and his forces were too frightened to take part in it. Nothing could be more unlikely than that the victor of the battle of Tara, during whose reign the foreigners had been repeatedly beaten down and reduced to slavery, would have been affected in such a way by the sight of a battle. Still less is it likely that he would have publicly proclaimed himself a coward. The Annals of the Four Masters distinctly assert that he took part in the battle, and that the enemy forces “were afterward routed by dint of battling, bravery, and striking by Malaughlan from the river Tolka and Finglas to Dublin against the foreigners and Leinstermen.” The Annals of Ulster say nothing of his defection. It would seem that the Meath troops were stationed behind the Dalcais, at some distance in the rear, and the Wars of the Gael with the Gall states that an understanding had been entered into between Malaughlan and the Danes that if he would not attack them they would refrain from attacking him. It is quite likely that Malaughlan, who had all to regain by Brian’s overthrow, was, as the Annals of Clonmacnois say, “content rather to lose the field than win it.”

In the earlier part of the day he probably stood aside, but when he saw the foreigners apparently winning he broke in with his troops and took his part in the struggle. This theory at least would reconcile the conflicting accounts. The death of Brian restored Malaughlan to the throne of Ireland, and up to the last days of his life he continued without intermission to harry and attack the foreigners. He reigned eight years after Clontarf, dying in 1022. Those of the annalists who do not admit the right of Brian to the throne of Tara give him a reign of forty-three years in all. He died in retirement at Cro Inis, opposite his fort of Dun-na-sciath on Lough Ennell, in Westmeath, with the Abbot of Armagh and the leading men of Ireland beside him.

The battle of Clontarf was an incident rather than a conclusion. It did not close the Danish period in Ireland, but it inaugurated a new phase. For the next two hundred years or more we find the Norse existing in the country as a separate nationality, adhering to their own interests and holding the cities they had founded round the coasts. Dublin remained in Danish hands. Kings of Norway and jarls of the Isles and Man could still look to Ireland with the assurance of a friendly welcome or even with the hope of a possible reconquest, and the fleets of both nations met on the seas for merchandise or war.

Some of the Northern jarls claimed great possessions in Ireland as well as in Scotland. Thorfinn, youngest son of Earl Sigurd the Stout of Orkney, who fell at Clontarf, held rule “from Thurso-skerry to Dublin” and was everywhere beloved in his wide-flung dominions. Important battles, not mentioned in the Irish chronicles, are remembered in the sagas. A great battle, much heard of in the North, was fought at Ulkfeksfiord (? Dundalk Bay) by a jarl of Orkney, in which an Irish king Konofogor (Conor) gained a victory, so that Earl Einar had to flee back to Orkney after losing his men and all his booty. This was in 1018, and is not mentioned in the Irish annals.[1]

Of Guthorm, the nephew of St Olaf, King of Norway, it is said about the year 1050 that Ireland was for him a land of peace and that he had his winter-quarters in Dublin and was in great friendship with King Margad.[2] They are found plundering together in Bretland (Wales), but they quarrelled about the division of the booty, and in this unfriendly fight Margad fell. They fought on St Olaf’s Day, and the booty was so great that Guthorm is said to have made an image of St Olaf out of every tenth penny of the loot.[3] This Irish king would seem to have been a king of Dublin called in the annals Eachmargadh (? Each-marcach, “The Rider of a Steed”), who came to the throne in 1035, was deposed by Ivar, son of Aralt, in 1038, but was restored in 1046, when Ivar was expelled. In spite of his Irish name he was a nephew of King Sitric, who left the kingdom to him when he went overseas to Rome.

In 1052 Eachmargadh also went overseas, apparently on the Welsh expedition from which he never returned. At this time the kingship of the Danes of Dublin seems to have been disputed between princes of the Norse or Danish race and the kings of Leinster, for Dermot, son of Maelnambo, King of Leinster, succeeded him. He was the ancestor of King Dermot MacMorrogh, who took his family title from this Dermot’s son. He and his son Morrogh were both styled “Kings of the Danes of Dublin.”