|Battle of Clontarf, oil on canvas painting by Hugh Frazer, 1826, Isaacs Art Center|
The Battle of Clontarf
Clontarf was a victory for the native side; Hastings, fought for the defence of England half a century later, was-on the same analysis-a defeat. Yet the Irish battle was not followed, as the victory of William the Conqueror was, by an era of nation building. It was followed by a century and more of disorder culminating in the successful invasion of Ireland by the victors of Hastings, the Normans. Since Clontarf ended in the tumbling of the Norsemen into the sea, and since Ireland experienced no more Viking raids after 1014, we regard it as the repulse of an invasion; but it was that only in a minor degree. Primarily it was a great and unsuccessful battle fought for the unity of Ireland. It is not, perhaps, surprising that we have chosen to remember the one aspect of it and to forget the other. We forget that an army of Leinster Irishmen fought beside the Norsemen on the losing side.
If Brian Boru-Brian of the Tributes-High King of Ireland, had been a younger man when he won the battle of Clontarf, and if he had lived to exploit his victory, his hand would, almost certainly, have descended heavily on the kingdom of Leinster. The Leinstermen had never willingly recognised a High King. By their action in opposing Brian at Clontarf they sought to destroy the unity of Ireland which he had envisaged ten years previously when, at a solemn moment in the church at Armagh, he declared himself Emperor of the Gael.
If Brian had been able to justify assumption of that title and to make good that unity, then Clontarf would have been a victory indeed. But he whose personality colours his age and whose name has come resounding down the centuries was an old man at the climax of his career and was killed at the moment of his success.
He began as the leader of the small state of Dál Chais at the mouth of the river Shannon. His neighbours were the Norse invaders, the descendants of the Vikings, who had founded the town of Limerick. By the end of the tenth century he had subdued these isolated Norsemen and had won for himself, first, the king ship of Munster and then, by defeating the Leinstermen and the Norse inhabitants of Dublin, the overlordship of the southern half of Ireland. The Dublin Norse were the founders of what was to become the capital of Ireland, and they ruled at this time over a considerable part of the seacoast stretching from the mouth of the river Boyne to Arklow.
In 1002 Brian Boru overawed the only other ruler who could rival him in power or in prospects, Malachy, King of Meath and holder of the High Kingship. Brian became High King. Malachy and the north and west of Ireland seem to have acquiesced in this assumption of a title of paramountcy which conferred on its holder as much authority as he could enforce. Leinster, in the persons of Maelmora, who was its king, and Gormflath, who was Maelmora’s sister, did not acquiesce. The name of Gormflath, who, according to the Norsemen, was ‘the fairest of all women’ but who ‘did all things ill over which she had any power’, comes down to us in the drama of history as the evil genius of what followed.
Some of the romantic accounts of the battle that were written soon after it was fought make a great deal of the personalities concerned. According to their writers, the conflict of aontarf was a matter of the passions of a few people-the passions of Kings Brian and Malachy; of Murchad, who was Brian’s son, of the Leinster pair, Maelmora and Gormflath; and of Sitric, the Norse-Irish King of Dublin, whose mother was the much married Gormflath and whose father was the Norseman Olaf Cuaran.
The story is complicated by the fact that the relationships of these people were involved. Gormflath, who incited her brother Maelmora to challenge Brian, was-most amazingly-the discarded wife of both Brian and Malachy. In view of this entanglement of the dramatis personae, aontarf was a domestic squabble of the first order. But there were much wider issues.