The Battle of Clontarf

Patrick Weston Joyce

164. Since the battle of Glenmama the Danes had kept quiet because the king's strong hand held them down. But it was a forced submission; and they only waited for an opportunity to attempt the overthrow of King Brian. The confederacy that led to the battle of Clontarf was originated, however, not by the Danes, but by Mailmora king of Leinster.

165. On one occasion while Mailmora was on a visit at Brian's palace of Kincora,* a bitter altercation arose at a game of chess between him and Murrogh, Brian's eldest son; so that he left the palace in anger and made his way to his own kingdom of Leinster, determined to revolt. And he and his people sent messengers to O'Neill king of Ulster, to O'Ruarc prince of Brefney (the present Co. Leitrim), and to the chiefs of Carbury in Kildare, all of whom promised their aid.

166. The confederates began by attacking Malachi's kingdom of Meath, as he was now one of Brian's adherents. He defended himself successfully for some time, but he was at last defeated at Drinan near Swords by Mailmora and Sitric with the united armies of Danes and Leinstermen, leaving 200 of his men, including his own son Flann, dead on the Field. After this, Malachi, finding himself unable to defend his kingdom against so many enemies, sent messengers to Brian to demand protection. Moved by the representations of the king of Meath, and alarmed at the menacing movements of the Danes and Leinstermen, Brian and his son Murrogh marched north by two different routes, ravaging the Leinster and Danish territories; and in September, 1013, encamped at Kilmainham, intending to take Dublin by blockade. But the attempt was unsuccessful, for the Danish garrison kept within walls and the Irish army ran short of provisions; so that the king was forced to raise the siege at Christmas, and return home to Kincora.

167. Mailmora and the Danish leaders now began actively at the work of mustering forces for the final struggle; and Gormlaith, who was among her own people—having been discarded by Brian—was no less active than her relatives. Her son Sitric of the Silken Beard, acting under her directions, engaged Sigurd earl of the Orkneys, as well as Broder and Amlaff of the Isle of Man, the two earls of all the north of England, who promised to be in Dublin on Palm Sunday, the day fixed on for the meeting of all the confederates. Broder had once been a Christian, but now worshipped heathen fiends: "he had a coat of mail on which no steel would bite;" he was both tall and strong, and his black locks were so long that he tucked them under his belt. These two vikings, Broder and Amlaff, who had a great fleet with 2,000 "Danmarkians" are described as "the chiefs of ships and outlaws and Danars of all the west of Europe, having no reverence for God or for man, for church or for sanctuary."

There came also 1,000 men covered with coats of mail from head to foot: a very formidable phalanx, seeing that the Irish fought as usual in tunics. Envoys were despatched in other directions also: and Norse auxiliaries sailed towards Dublin from Scotland, from the Isles of Shetland, from the Hebrides, from France and Germany, and from the shores of Scandinavia.

168. While Sitric and the other envoys were thus successfully prosecuting their mission abroad, Mailmora was equally active at home; and by the time all the foreign auxiliaries had joined muster, and Dublin Bay was crowded with their black ships, he had collected the forces of Leinster and arranged them in three great battalions within and around the walls of Dublin.

169. The Irish monarch had now no time to lose. He collected his forces about the 17th of March; and having encamped at Kilmainham, he set fire to the Danish districts near Dublin, so that the fierce Norsemen within the city could see Fingall the whole way from Dublin to Howth smoking and blazing. And brooding vengeance, they raised their standards and sallied forth to prepare for battle.

On the evening of Thursday the 22nd of April the king got word that the Danes were making preparations to fight next day—Good Friday. The good king Brian was very unwilling to fight on that solemn day; but he was not able to avoid it.

170. On the morning of Friday the 23rd of April 1014 the Irish army began their March from Kilmainham at dawn of day, in three divisions; and the Danes were also in three divisions. Sitric the king of Dublin was not in the battle: he remained behind to guard the city. We are not told the numbers engaged: but there were probably about 20,000 men each side. The Danes stood with their backs to the sea: the Irish on the land side facing them.

In the march from Kilmainham the venerable monarch rode at the head of the army; but his sons and friends prevailed on him, on account of his age—he was now seventy-three—to leave the chief command to his son Murrogh. When they had come near the place of conflict, the army halted; and the king holding aloft a crucifix in sight of all, rode from rank to rank and addressed them in a few spirited words. He reminded them that on that day their good Lord had died for them; and he exhorted them to fight bravely for their religion and their country. Then giving the signal for battle he withdrew to his tent in the rear.

Little or no tactics appear to have been employed. It was simply a fight of man against man, a series of hand-to-hand encounters; and the commanders fought side by side with their men.

171. The first divisions to meet were the Dalcassians and the foreign Danes; then the men of Connaught and the Danes of Dublin fell on one another; and the battle soon became general. From early morning until sunset they fought without the least intermission. The thousand Danes in coats of mail were marked out for special attack: and they were all cut to pieces; for their armour was no protection against the terrible battle-axes of the Dalcassians.

The old chronicle describes Murrogh as dealing fearful havoc. Three several times he rushed with his household troops through the thick press of the furious foreigners, mowing down men to the right and left; for he wielded a heavy sword in each hand, and needed no second blow. At last he came on earl Sigurd whom he found slaughtering the Dalcassians. But Murrogh struck off his helmet with a blow of the right hand sword, bursting straps and buckles; and with the other felled him to the earth—dead.

Towards evening the Irish made a general and determined attack; and the main body of the Danes at last gave way. Crowds fled along the level shore towards Dublin, vainly hoping to reach either the ships or the city. But Malachi who had stood by till this moment, rushed down with his Meathmen and cut off their retreat.

The greatest slaughter of the Danes took place during this rout, on the level space now covered with streets, from Ballybough Bridge to the Four Courts.

172. We have related so far the disasters of the Danes. But the Irish had their disasters also; and dearly did they pay for their great victory.

After the rout of the Danish main body, scattered parties of Danes continued to fight for life with despairing fury at various points over the plain. On one of those groups came Murrogh, still fighting, but so fatigued that he could scarce lift his hands. Anrad the leader of the band, dashed at him furiously. But Morrogh who had dropped his sword, closing on him, grasped him in his arms, and by main strength pulled his armour over his head: then getting him under, he seized the Norseman's sword and thrust it three times through his body to the very ground. Anrad, writhing in the death agony, plunged his dagger into the prince's side, inflicting a mortal wound. But the Irish hero lived till next morning when he received the solemn rites of the church.

The heroic boy Turlogh, only fifteen years of age, the son of Murrogh, fought valiantly during the day in his father's division, side by side with his elder relatives. After the battle, late in the evening, he was found drowned at the fishing weir of the river Tolka, with his hands entangled in the long hair of a Dane, whom he had pursued into the tide at the time of the great flight.

173. But the crowning tragedy of the bloody day of Clontarf was yet to come. The aged king remained in his tent engaged in earnest prayer, while he listened anxiously to the din of battle. He had a single attendant, Laiten, who stood at the door to view the field; and close round the tent stood a guard. And now came the great rout; and the guards, thinking all danger past, eagerly joined in the pursuit, so that the king and his attendant were left alone.

It happened that Broder, who had fled from the battlefield, came with some followers at this very time toward the tent. "I see some people approaching," said Laiten. "What manner of people are they?" asked the king. "Blue and naked people," replied the attendant. "They are Danes in armour," exclaimed the king, and instantly rising from his cushion, he drew his sword. Broder at that instant rushed on him with a double-edged battle-axe, but was met by a blow of the heavy sword that cut off both legs, one from the knee and the other from the ankle. But the furious Viking, even while falling, cleft the king's head with the axe.

After a little time the guards, as if struck by a sudden sense of danger, returned in haste: but too late. They found the king dead, and his slayer stretched by his side dying.

174. As to the numbers slain, the records differ greatly. According to the annals of Ulster 7,000 fell on the Danish side and 4,000 on the Irish, which is probably near the truth. Almost all the leaders on both sides were slain, and among them Mailmora, the direct inciter of the battle.

The battle of Clontarf was the last great struggle between Christianity and heathenism.

The body of king Brian and that of his son Murrogh were conveyed with great solemnity to Armagh, where they were interred in the cathedral, the archbishop and the clergy celebrating the obsequies for twelve days.

175. After the battle of Clontarf and the death of Brian, Malachi, by general consent and without any formality, took possession of the throne. He reigned for eight years after, and gave evidence of his old energy by crushing some risings of the Danes—feeble expiring imitations of their ancient ferocious raids—and by gaining several victories over the Leinstermen. He died in 1022 in the seventy-third year of his age, leaving behind him a noble record of self-denial public spirit, and kingly dignity.

* Kincora was situated on the very spot now occupied by the town of Killaloe.