The Battle of Clontarf, A.D. 1014

Cluana Tairbh was the ancient name of “Clontarf;” and this battle is designated by the Four Masters “Cath Coradh Cluana Tairbh” or the Battle of Clontarf of the Heroes.

In the tenth century, many of the sea-coast towns, including Limerick, Dublin, Wexford, and Waterford, were in possession of the Danes: the ports were to them a ready refuge if driven by native valour to embark in their fleets; and convenient head quarters when they had marauding expeditions to England or Scotland, in preparation.

But Ireland’s greatest enemy—domestic dissensions—then greatly prevailed: the great northern Hy-Nialls, long the bravest and most united of the Irish Clans, were now divided into two opposing parties—the Cineal Owen or the Clan Owen, and the Cineal Connell or the Clan Connell; the latter of whom had been for some time excluded from the alternate accession of sovereignty, which was still maintained between the two great families of the race of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the north and south Hy-Niall.

The sovereignty of Munster had also been settled on the alternate principle between the great tribes of the Dalcassians or north Munster race, and the Owenists or Eugenians, who were the south Munster race; until A.D. 942, when Brian Boru’s father, as a Dalcassian, had to contest the royal power with Callaghan of Cashel, the South Munster prince; but Brian’s father nobly yielded his claim at the time, and joined his opponent in his contest with the Danes.

Some time after, Brian’s brother, Mahoun, attained to the royal power; but the South Munster men withdrew from him their allegiance: allied themselves with the Danes; and became the principals in the plot for his assassination.

Brian avenged his brother’s death: the two opposing chiefs, Donovan and Molloy, were slain; and, A.D. 978, Brian became the undisputed King of Munster.

Malachy the Second, King of Meath, was then Monarch of Ireland.

Brian and Malachy, now made up their differences, united their forces against the common enemy, and obtained another important victory at Glen-Mama or the Glen of the Mountain Pass—a valley near Dunlavin, on the borders of Wicklow and Dublin; where Harolt, son of Olaf Cuaran, the then Danish King in Ireland, was slain, and four thousand of his followers there perished with him.

Brian at this time gave his daughter in marriage to Sitric, another of Olaf’s sons, and completed the family alliance by espousing Sitric’s mother, the Lady Gormflaith or Gormley, who had been divorced from her second husband, King Malachy the Second.

Brian now proceeded to depose Malachy, A.D. 1002: according to Moore, Malachy’s magnanimous character was the real ground of peace; he submitted to the encroachments rather from motives of disinterested desire for his country’s welfare, than from any reluctance or inability to fight his own battle.

Malachy surrendered all hostages to Brian, and Brian agreed to recognize Malachy, “without war or trespass,” as sole monarch of Leath Cuinn, while Brian himself, in this treaty between them was acknowledged monarch of Leath Moga.

The proud Hy-Nialls of the north were long in yielding to Brian’s claims; but even them he at length subdued, compelling the Cineal Owen to give him hostages, and carrying off the lord of Cineal Connell bodily to his fortress at Kincora.

It will be remembered that Brian was the third husband of the Lady Gormley, whose brother Maelmordha was King of Leinster, a relative of the Danish king; and who had obtained his throne through the assistance of the Danes.

This lady was remarkable for her beauty, but her temper was proud and vindictive: this was probably the reason why she was repudiated by both Malachy and Brian; and why, in return she was “grim” against them.

On one occasion, Maelmordha, wearing a tunic of silk which Brian had given him, “with a border of gold round it, and silver buttons,” arrived on some business of state at Kincora, and asked his sister, the Lady Gormley, to replace one of the silver buttons which had come off; but the lady flung the garment into the fire, and then bitterly reproached Maelmordha with having accepted this token of vassalage. This excited his temper.

An opportunity soon offered for a quarrel: Brian’s eldest son, Murrogh, was playing a game at chess with his cousin, Conoing; Maelmordha was looking on, and suggested a move by which Murrogh lost the game.

The young prince exclaimed: “That was like the advice you gave the Danes, which lost them Glen Mama.” Maelmordha replied: “I will give them advice now and they shall not be defeated.” To which Murrogh answered: “Then you had better remind them to prepare a yew tree for your reception.”

This was the ostensible casus belli.

The King of Leinster proceeded to organize a revolt against Brian, and succeeded; several of the Irish chiefs flocked to his standard; an encounter soon took place in Meath, where they slew Malachy’s grandson Donal: Malachy marched to the rescue, and defeated the assailants with great slaughter, A.D. 1013.

Fierce reprisals now took place on each side; sanctuary was disregarded; and Malachy called on Brian to assist him. Brian at once complied.

After successfully ravaging Ossory he marched to Dublin, where he was joined by his son Murrogh, who had devastated Wicklow—burning, destroying, and carrying off captives, until he reached Cill Maighnenn or “Kilmainham.”

They now blockaded Dublin, from the 9th September until Christmas Day; when Brian, for want of provisions, was obliged to raise the siege, and return home. —(See Miss Cusack’s History of Ireland).

The most active preparations on both sides were now being made for a mighty and decisive conflict.

The Danes had already obtained possession of England—a country which had always been united in its resistance to their power: why, then, should they not hope to conquer, with at least equal facility, a people who had so many opposing interests, and who, unfortunately, but rarely sacrificed those interests to the common good.

The Lady Gormley, Brian’s wife, was their prime-mover; she it was who sent her son Sitric, the Danish King of Dublin (and the son-in-law of Brian Boru) in all directions to obtain reinforcements for the Danes; for, she naturally ambitioned to acquire for Sitric the entire sovereignty of Ireland, and to avenge the various defeats and disasters the Danes had sustained in their battles with Brian Boru, and King Malachy of Meath.

For this purpose, emissaries were sent to collect and combine all the forces they possibly could (for the invasion of Ireland) amongst the Danes and Norwegians of Northumberland, and of the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man, together with auxiliaries from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and also, it is said, from the Normans of France, and some Belgians, with some Britons from Wales and Cornwall.

The “Annals of Inisfallen” state that Danish forces came from all the places above mentioned, and from all parts of the world where the Danes resided; and the Four Masters mention that all the “foreigners” of Eastern Europe came against Brian and Malachy.

A powerful fleet with these combined forces of foreigners arrived in Dublin Bay on Palm Sunday, the 18th of April, A.D. 1014, under the command of Brodar, the Danish admiral.

The entire of these combined foreign forces, together with the Danes of Dublin and other parts of Ireland, amounted to twelve thousand men; and their Irish allies the Lagenians (or Leinster men), under Maelmordha, King of Leinster, numbered nine thousand—in all making twenty-one thousand men.

When Maelmordha found all his foreign allies assembled, he sent a herald to Brian Boru, challenging him to battle on the Plains of Clontarf: this custom prevailed amongst the ancient Irish, of selecting a time and place, according to mutual consent, to decide their contests in a pitched battle.

Brian “with all that obeyed him of the men of Ireland,” met the Danes at Clontarf; and the battle took place at the mouth of the river Tolka, where the bridge of Ballybough now stands.

Malachy, King of Meath, came with a thousand men; and according to Keating and O’Halloran, O’Neill, prince of Ulster at the time, made an offer of his troops and services, which was declined by Brian, in consequence of some former feuds between them; but although O’Neill did not come, some of the Ulster chiefs joined the standard of Brian at Clontarf.

O’Carroll, prince of Oriel; the prince of Fermanagh; Felim O’Neill, a famous warrior, called Felim “of the Silver Shield;” Sitric, a prince of Ulster, etc.; and the Mormaors or Great Stewards of Lennox and Mar, with their forces from Scotland—all fought on the side of Brian Boru.

Brian’s entire army, consisting in the main, of the provincial troops of the men of Munster and Connaught, thus amounted to about twenty thousand men.

The Danish forces, disposed in three divisions ready for action, Brian’s army was also disposed in three divisions; and having with a crucifix in one hand and a sword in the other, harangued his troops, Brian, now 88 years of age, was then compelled to retire to the rere, and await the result of the conflict: there he used to say to his attendant—“Watch thou the battle and the combats, whilst I say the psalms.”

It was a conflict of heroes—a hand-to-hand fight. On either side bravery was not wanting; and for a time the result seemed doubtful.

Towards the afternoon, however, as many of the Danish leaders were cut down, their followers began to give way, and the Irish forces prepared for a final effort.

The Northmen and their allies were now flying—the one towards their ships, the other towards Dublin; but as they fled towards the (river) Tolka, they forgot that it was now swollen with the incoming tide, and thousands perished by water who had escaped the sword.

In the meantime Brodar, perceiving Brian’s soldiers in pursuit of the flying Danes, and none left to guard the royal tent, rushed forward with some of his followers from their concealment in the wood, and, attacking the king, slew him, and, it is said, cut off his head, together with the hand of the page, who had stretched it forth to save the king; and he then cried out—“Let it be proclaimed from man to man that Brian has fallen by (the hand of) Brodar.”

Immediately on hearing of Brian’s death, the soldiers who were in pursuit of the Danes returned; and having taken Brodar, hung him on a tree, and tore out his entrails.

According to the Four Masters, Maelmordha the King of Leinster, and many of his chiefs, were slain by Malachy the Second and his men; who, towards the end of the battle, attacked the Danes and Lagenians, and slew great numbers of them.

It is stated in the ancient MS. called Leabhar Oiris, as given by Keating, O’Halloran, and others, that when Malachy returned to Meath he described the Battle of Clontarf as follows:—

“It is impossible for human language to describe that battle, nor could less than an angel from heaven adequately relate the terrors of that day. We were separated from the combatants, as spectators, at no greater distance than the breadth of a ditch and of a fallow field; the high wind of the spring blowing towards where we stood. Not longer than a half an hour after they commenced the conflict, could the combatants be distinguished from each other; not even a father or a brother could recognize each other, except by their voices, so closely were they mingled together. When they warriors engaged and grappled in close combat, it was dreadful to behold how their weapons glittered over their heads, in the sun; giving them the appearance of a numerous flock of white sea-gulls flying in the air. Our bodies and clothes were all covered over as it were with a red rain of blood, borne from the battle-field on the wings of the wind; the swords, spears, and battle-axes of the combatants were so cemented and entangled with clotted blood and locks of hair, that they could with difficulty use them; and it was a long time before they recovered their former brightness. To those who beheld the slaughter, as spectators, the sight was more terrific than to those engaged in the battle; which continued from sunrise until the shades of evening, when the full tide carried the ships away.”

Although the attempt to establish Danish supremacy in Ireland received a death-blow by the victory of Clontarf, yet the Danes continued at Dublin, Waterford, and other places; and held considerable power for more than a century after that time—up to the Anglo-Norman invasion.

The royal tent, and Brian’s head-quarters, are traditionally said to have been at the place now pointed out by the name of “Conquer Hill,” near the sea shore, a short distance beyond the present village of Clontarf; but the battle-field extended widely over the adjoining plains, and the pursuing retreating parties had fierce conflicts along the shore towards Raheny, Baldoyle, and Howth on one side: and on the other, as far as the river Tolka and Ballybough bridge, towards Dublin.

The renowned Brian fell, as above mentioned, in the 88th year of his age; and he has been always justly celebrated as one of the greatest of the Irish kings; eminent for his valour, wisdom, abilities, patriotism, piety, munificence, and patronage of learning, and the arts; from the eminence of his character, as a patriot, a hero, and a legislator, he has been called the “Irish Alfred;” and by the Four Masters he is designated “The Augustus of Western Europe.”

Clontarf has been called “The Marathon of Ireland;” but as yet no monument has been raised to the memory of Brian, or to the heroes who fell in that battle.

Brian is mentioned to have been a man of majestic stature; highly distinguished for his personal prowess, bravery, and feats of arms, in his various battles; his residence was at the palace of Kincora, on the banks of the Shannon, near Killaloe, in the county Clare. The place was called in Irish, Cean Cora or the Head of the Weir, from a weir placed there on the Shannon; and there are still to be seen some remains of the great earthen ramparts which surrounded his fortress.

Brian Boru’s “Harp” is still preserved in the Museum of Trinity College, Dublin; and his glories are commemorated by Moore, in one of the Irish Melodies, commencing thus:—

“Remember the glories of Brian the brave,

Though the days of the hero are o’er;

For, lost to Momonia, and cold in his grave,

He returns to Kincora no more.

That star of the held, which so often had poured

Its beam on the battle, is set,

But enough of its glory remains on each sword

To light us to victory yet.”