Clontarf - Irish Pictures (1888)

From Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil (1888) by Richard Lovett

Chapter 1: Ireland’s Eye … concluded

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Needing a somewhat longer journey, and yet within easy reach, are Clontarf and Howth, Clondalkin, Kingstown, and Killiney. All of these are much frequented by the residents of Dublin. Clontarf is midway between Dublin and Howth, and was the scene of that famous battle fought on Good Friday, 1014, between Brian Borumha and the Danes under Sihtric. The Danes were defeated and their power broken, but the chieftain who has ever since stood out as the typical Irish monarch was slain. Brian became King of Munster in 976, he established his power over the whole of Ireland in 1002. He was able and strong in war, wise in counsel, and not unmindful of the works of peace. 'He erected or restored the cathedral of Killaloe, the churches of Inis-caltra in Lough Derg, the round tower of Tomgraney in County Clare. He built bridges over the. Shannon at Athlone and Lanesborough, he constructed roads, he strengthened the forts and island fortresses of Munster. He dispensed a royal hospitality, he administered rigid and impartial justice, and established peace and order through all the country, so that, as the historian puts it, "a woman might walk in safety through the length of Ireland, from Tory Island in Donegal to Glandore Harbour in Cork, carrying a ring of gold on a horse-rod."'[12]

Dr. Stokes, in the book from which we have just quoted, gives a very clear and realistic sketch of the famous battle. It was 'fought all over the ground now occupied by the north side of Dublin, from the wood of Clontarf to the site of the present Four Courts, where stood the only bridge then spanning the river Liffey. It began early in the morning, at sunrise, soon after five o'clock. A strong north-east wind was blowing, as the inhabitants of Dublin still so often experience in April, to their bitter cost. The Danish inhabitants of Dublin crowded the walls of the town, which clustered thick round the hill now crowned by Christ Church Cathedral, whence a splendid view of the fight presented itself. … It was a thoroughly Celtic fight, without any skill or plan or manoeuvres, consisting merely of a series of individual encounters, which are told in a very Homeric style. … The Raven Standard ever fluttered in front of Sigurd, who carried destruction with him wherever he went.'

Sigurd is at length slain by Morrogh O'Brian, the Irish leader, who in turn is mortally wounded by a Dane named Eric, whom Morrogh slays just before he expires. The Danes are then utterly routed, and multitudes perish in trying to reach their ships on the beach at Clontarf. But in the hour of victory came the worst blow to the Irish. Some of the Danes had fled to the woods which covered the heights around Dublin. 'Brian had taken his station on one of these hills to engage in prayer, like Moses, attended by only a few servants. The king was seated on a fur rug, where he prolonged his petitions from early morning till the afternoon, receiving occasional reports concerning the progress of the battle from Latean, his attendant. As the sun began to descend towards the west, the apostate deacon Brodar and two other warriors approached the king's station, seeking refuge in the woods. One of the three had been in Brian's service, and he called Brodar's attention to Brian. "The king, the king!" said he. "No, no, a priest, a priest!" replied Brodar. "By no means," said the soldier; "that is the great King Brian." Brodar then turned round with a battle-axe in his hand. The aged king gathered his remaining strength, aimed a blow at Brodar, which wounded his legs, while Brodar cleft Brian's head in twain. He then continued his flight to the woods, but was shortly afterwards taken and slain. Malachey, King of Meath, who had remained in reserve, now advanced upon the field and completed the work, routing the enemy on every side, thus terminating the domination, though not the presence, of the Danes in Ireland.'[13]

Thus passed away King Brian Boru, in the hour of his final victory. And now, every few minutes, tramcars start from the Nelson Pillar, which speedily carry the curious traveller over the plain where the beaten Danes . fled in the vain hope of making good their escape in the ships which had so often carried bloodshed and terror around the Irish coasts. A curious proof of the accuracy of the old Irish Annals has been brought to light by modern science. The early accounts of the battle represent the tide as being at its flood at the time of the rout, viz., about 6 o'clock; and Dr. Haughton has proved that on April 23rd, 1014, it was high water in Dublin Bay at 5.55 P.M.

Passing Clontarf, the traveller reaches the Hill of Howth, not only the most prominent feature in the scenery of Dublin Bay, but also a spot rich in antiquities and in the fine views to be obtained from it. Here is the ancient port of Dublin. Here the old Norse sea-rovers used to collect prior to one of their marauding expeditions. Hard by the harbour stand the considerable ruins of the fine old abbey. Beyond that is situated the castle, which is still a fine residence, with very beautiful grounds. Near the Carrigmore cliffs stands a splendid cromlech, consisting of ten huge masses of rock, the one forming the table measuring in one direction eighteen feet, in the other nineteen and a half, having an extreme thickness of eight feet. Continuing the walk round the headland, the well-known Bailey light comes into view, and in completing the circuit fine views of Dublin and the Wicklow Hills delight the eye.

The chief interest of Howth is its lighthouse, with the wonderful gas-light beacon of Mr. Wigham, which has revolutionized the old system of using oil lamps for lighthouse illumination. According to the depth of fog and atmospheric opacity, additional supplies of light are available without delay, and a penetrating power, hitherto undreamed of, at once supplied.



[12] Ireland and the Celtic Church, p. 291.

[13] Ibid. pp. 302-305.

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