Part II – Battle of Clontarf
A more likely image of Brian Boru Today in Military History – April 23, 1014 The Battle Dispositions The rebel army totaled about 6000 men. On the right was the division of Brodir of Mann, 1000 men strong. Brodir was said to wear a coat of chain mail that no weapon could penetrate. Their flank rested on Dublin Bay. In the center was the 1000-man division commanded by Earl Sigurd the Stout, with his magical battle standard. These men are described as wearing chain mail from head to toe, carrying two-handed battle axes. The left wing of the rebel army was composed of three divisions. The forward division consisted of 1000 Dublin Vikings, men who had decided not to cower inside the walls of the city and fight; they were commanded by Silkybeard’s son. [Most of the chronicles of Clontarf say that Sigtrygg watched the battle from the walls of his city, while some say that he actually fought and fought well. Personally, I favor the former, as he was one of the few leaders on either side to survive the battle.] One chronicle claims that some English, Welsh, Flemish, French and Normans were also included in this division. Drawn up behind the Dublin Vikings were the Leinstermen of Máel Mórda, totaling 3000 men divided into two divisions.
Several of the chronicles state that the various Viking contingents were lined up in shieldwalls for maximum protection, then probably switched to the “swine array” as contact with the enemy became likely. [For more information, please see my previous posting of January 8, 2010: “Battle of Ashdown: Alfred the Great Defeats Vikings.”] They also were almost universally wearing some chain mail, helmets, and large round shields. Their armament consisted of spears, swords and two-handed battle axes. The Irish warriors generally wore almost no armor save perhaps a helmet and small shield. Their weapons consisted of spears, javelins, and swords and perhaps a few axes. The personal bodyguards of the kings or chieftains may have had helmets or chain mail shirts, but little else. Also, there were likely some skirmishers in front of the line, armed with javelins or slings, with a few bowmen as well. The High King’s forces were drawn up similar to their enemy. The right wing of Brian’s army consisted of Ospak’s Christianized Manx Vikings, as well as some other foreign mercenaries from Scotland and Norway. Most of these men were probably attracted to this fight for the same reason as the Orkney and Manx Vikings: loot. This wing probably totaled 1000-1500 men. The center of the Ard Ri’s army comprised about 1500 Irish tribesmen of Connacht in one division under their own kings, and 2000 men of Munster led by Brian’s son Murchad. On the left wing were 1400 warriors of Brian’s own Dal Caissans led by his grandson Turlogh – a mere boy of fifteen – and Brian’s brother Cuduiligh. Several hundred yards to the right-rear of Brian’s army were 1500 men from Meath, commanded by Máel Sechnaill. They had a ringside seat to the action, as they mimicked Sigtrygg Silkybeard and watched the proceedings unfold.
The Battle Both sides were several hundred yards apart on a somewhat narrow field, with the shore of the Liffey River and Dublin Bay to one side and a thick wood on the other. Prior to the battle, the Ard Ri addressed his forces astride a horse, a sword in one hand and a crucifix in the other. According to “A Concise History of Ireland,” Brian “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.” Afterward, he retired to his tent to pray and chant psalms. [Though he was the High King, he probably felt that his sons and other relatives could manage the battle just fine without him. After all, he was somewhere between 74 and 88 years old. In addition, it was Good Friday and the High King had apparently pledged not to fight on this holy day.] In the early stages of the battle, individuals shouted insults at each other, leading to personal challenges taking place. Traditional enemies fought each other to settle old scores, with catcalls and cheering from both sides. During these contests, the two sides gradually moved closer to each other. Finally, about mid-morning, the two battle lines charged and made contact. Initially, the battle was no contest, as the heavier armor and weapons of the Vikings in the rebel army prevailed. On the Máel Mórda right, Brodir’s Manxmen took the fight to the Dal Caissans. As expected, Brodir’s mail coat was impenetrable. However, according to Njal’s Saga, an Irish warrior named Wolf (or Ulf) the Quarrelsome confronted the Manx leader. [Wolf is variously described as the brother, son or stepson of Brian Boru; however, modern historians think he is really a complete fabrication of the saga author.] These two manly men engaged three times in single combat. Each time, Brodir’s mail coat prevented him from receiving a wound; but, each time Wolf knocked Brodir to the ground. After the third time, Brodir of Man lost his nerve and fled across the field into the nearby woods, with some of his bodyguards following him. With the Manx Vikings’ leader gone, Brian Boru’s son Murchad let a 140-man “special ops” unit of 140 king’s sons – either relatives of Brian or hostages from leaders who had sworn fealty to the Ard Ri. This band of men detached from the center and struck the left flank of Brodir’s Manxmen. Despite this flank attack, the Vikings continued to hold their own, despite the cowardice of Brodir. On the left of the rebel army, the Dublin Vikings were hard-pressed by the Christianized Manx Vikings and Brian’s other foreign mercenaries. This portion of the battle was a classic battle of Viking versus Viking, with a few Scots, Norwegian, French and Flemish foreigners thrown in. These two contingents, on opposite sides of the battle, were probably the heaviest armed and armored men on either side, save perhaps the Orkney Vikings in the rebel center. As the Dublin Norse Irish were ground down, their Irish back-ups could not stand up to the fury of the Manxmen. The men of the rebel left were slowly pushed back until the two sides were fighting in the woods on the edge of the battlefield. One chronicle states that after the fight, “the trees dripped with the blood of the slain.”
The major action now shifted to the center, where Earl Sigurd and his Orkney Vikings were fighting under his raven standard. As the fighting moved into the afternoon, Sigurd’s men continued to fight the men of Munster toe-to-toe. Sigurd’s men – the chronicles frequently refer to them as “Danes” – held their own for most of the day, their armor and weapons holding the men of Munster and Connacht at bay. However, the magical raven banner drew the Irish warriors like a lodestone. Each time a standard bearer was slain, another man bravely took his place, even though everyone knew the prophecy of imminent death for any warrior who held the item. Late in the afternoon, another standard bearer went down, the pole broken; Sigurd called to one of his men named Thorstein, imploring him to pick up the magical banner. Thorstein told his commander essentially, “Pick it up yourself!” Somewhat non-plussed, Earl Sigurd did just that, wrapping the raven banner around his body, and continued fighting. However, right about this time, a blood-soaked apparition approached him; it was Murchad, son of the High King, and he was out for blood, still leading his personal unit of “king’s sons.” According to the chronicles, Brian’s son was wielding a heavy sword in each hand, and had been dealing fearful damage this day to the Orkneymen. Spotting Sigurd with his magical standard, Murchad promptly engaged the Viking lord, striking him in the helmet with one sword, then dealing the death blow with the other. After felling Sigurd, Murchad and his men attacked the leaderless Manx Vikings, wearing away their last shred of discipline. By this point it was almost sundown, and the rebel army was weakened and near leaderless. The Ard Ri’s forces made a concerted final charge, and broke Máel Mórda’s line. At this point, the men of Máel Sechnaill, spectators to this point, saw that the tide of battle had turned against the rebels, and now jointed the pursuit. The rebel forces began a disorganized rout, some towards Dublin, the foreign Vikings to their ships. However, by this time the tide had come in, and the Vikings’ longships were now afloat in Dublin Bay. Many of the Manx and Orkney Vikings were either drowned or cut down as they tried to swim to their ships. Many Vikings and rebel Irish were cut down by the men of Meath, eager to “wash their spears” in the blood of Vikings or of rival Irish clans, as they tried to cross the single bridge to the opposite side of the Liffey River and safety in Dublin. It was during this disordered rout that the High King lost his son and his grandson. Murchad, so tired he couldn’t lift his weapons, was confronted with a band of retreating Vikings. Using his main strength, Murchad snatched up the Viking leader named Anrud, threw him to the ground and pulled his armor over his arms and head. He then used the point of his sword and stabbed the Norseman to death. However, the Norseman managed to grab a dagger from Murchad’s weapons belt and gave Murchad a death-blow in return. Meanwhile, Brian’s grandson Turlogh ran down a Norseman trying to swim to his ship. The young Irishman grabbed the Viking by his hair and dunked him in Dublin Bay, until both men drowned.
However, the greatest tragedy was yet to come. As the battle wound down, the Ard Ri’s bodyguards joined the pursuit of the fleeing enemy, leaving Brian Boru alone in his tent save for a personal attendant. At that moment, Brodir of Man and his followers emerged from the woods, happening upon Brian’s encampment. One chronicle states that someone pointed out Brian’s tent to Brodir prior to the battle. The Manxman entered the High King’s tent and struck the old man down at the moment of his greatest triumph. Never a shrinking violet, Brodir ran from the tent screaming for all to hear, “Now let every man know, that it is Brodir of Man who has slain Brian Boru!” [Brodir’s fate will be related below…] In the aftermath, almost the entire rebel Irish-Viking army was killed. The Ard Ri’s army lost over 4000 men themselves. The great irony of this battle is that in seeking to unite all of Ireland under his rule, the death of Brian Boru ended that rule. Ireland once more broke up into individual provincial rulers, Máel Sechnaill was once more proclaimed High King, and the Irish once more became a fractious, warlike folk. Footnote #1: Brodir of Man did not escape retribution for his killing of Brian Boru. According to the chronicles, he was run down in the pursuit after the battle by…guess who?...Wolf the Quarrelsome. Wolf cut open Brodir’s abdomen, and began pulling the Manxman’s intestines out, foot by foot, and tied Brodir to a tree by his innards, allowing him to expire slowly. Footnote #2: Brian Boru’s body, as well as the remains of his son Murchad, were taken to the city of Armagh, and buried in the cathedral there. Tradition holds they were buried in the northern section of the sanctuary. The chroniclers said that Irish priests said prayers over the late High King’s body for twelve days. Footnote #3: The battle of Clontarf has been fertile ground for writers in the last hundred years. In 1972, a short story entitled, “The Twilight of the Grey Gods” was published posthumously. Its author, Robert E. Howard, would go on to write about Conan the Cimmerian, Kull the Conqueror and Solomon Kane. Also, author Morgan Llywelyn wrote a fictionalized biography of Brian Boru entitled, “Lion of Ireland,” published in 1980. More recently, British author Tim Severin wrote about the battle in “Odinn’s Child,” the first book in his Viking series, published in 2005. In the TV series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” the character Miles O’Brien was fond of recreating the battle on the space station’s holosuites, naturally taking the role of Brian Boru (from whom he claimed direct descent). Finally, Clontarf has been fodder for musical groups, from Gaelic doom metal to Celtic/Black Metal to Celtic Folk Metal bands. Footnote #4: For those of you who imbibe a pint or two from time to time, on the label of each bottle or can of Guiness there is a right-facing Celtic harp. It was registered by Guiness as their trademark in 1862, and is known as “Brian Boru’s harp.” A 15th century replica of a mediaeval Gaelic harp is on display at Trinity College Dublin, and has been dubbed “Brian Boru’s harp.”
Footnote #5: The only real “winner” from the battle of Clontarf was Sigtrygg Silkybeard, who watched the whole conflict unfold from the walls of Dublin. He remained ruler of Viking Dublin until 1036, dying in exile six years later. He eventually accepted the “White Christ,” made a pilgrimage to Rome, and founded Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, which exists to this day. The “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography” describes Sigtrygg as "a patron of the arts, a benefactor of the church, and an economic innovator." He also started the first mint in Ireland in the 990’s.