IV.
BRIAN BORU AND THE BATTLE OF CLONTARF

INTRODUCTION

IN THE HIERARCHY OF THE Irish kings, Brian Boru (c. 941-1014) began as an outsider and upstart. Boru (or Borumha) was the son of Conneid, king of Thomond, which was a minor kingdom within Munster that corresponded closely with the boundaries of today’s County Clare. Romantic legend depicts young Boru as a teenage guerrilla leader defying the Vikings and the nearby Norse community of Limerick, but whatever the case, after the death of his older brother in 976, he became king of Thomond and chief of the Dal Cais, the family clan.

It is impossible to know if Brian had a vision of Ireland as a single nation, as some nationalists later liked to believe, or if he was simply seized with a personal political and military ambition never before seen in Ireland. But beginning with the destruction of Viking Limerick, his shadow moved across the face of the island. He took the crown of Munster from the Eoganacht clan, then moved east to subdue Leinster, then north to confront the powerful O’Neills. Coordinating both land troops and a navy of ships probably captured from the Vikings, Brian demonstrated considerable tactical sophistication at a time when a battle was often simply two lines of troops flailing away at each other. Although he never succeeded in conquering the north, he did intimidate Malachy (or Mael Sechnaill), the high king of Ireland, into handing over the throne to Boru in 997. Dramatically demonstrating that the high kingship was no longer the exclusive property of the O’Neills, Brian had himself crowned not on the traditional Hill of Tara but at the Rock of Cashel, seat of the kings of Munster. Soon afterward, in Armagh, he was called emperor (imperatoris) of the Irish, perhaps the only time that word has been used to describe an Irish leader. Under Boru, the title ard-ri, high king, was to be no longer hollow or ceremonial.

While the Irish kings struggled with each other, the Vikings—now more often merchants than marauders—still controlled the cities. (Dublin was a virtual city-state with a Norse king all its own.) The complex state of affairs was probably best embodied—quite literally embodied—in Boru’s remarkable fourth wife, Gormfhlaith (or Kormlada), daughter of a king of Leinster. He probably married her as a token of his dominance over that province, and they seem to have had no children, but at one time or another she was also married to both Olaf Cuaran (king of Dublin) and Boru’s adversary, Malachy. Her and Olaf’s son, Sitric, was king of Dublin when Boru and Malachy—fighting side by side as allies after Malachy’s abdication as high king—tried unsuccessfully to take the city, and her brother was Maelmordha, the king of Leinster, who, with Viking support, rebelled against Boru. The result was the fatal battle at Clontarf.

An imaginary portrait of Brian Boru, high king of Ireland.

Clon means “meadow,” and Clontarf was a marshy seaside field that ran along a small stream just north of Dublin, close enough to town—according to some accounts—that it could be seen from the city walls. There, during Holy Week in 1014, two armies gathered. On one side was Boru, now in his seventies (although some accounts make him older), his eldest son Murchadh, the men of Munster, the former high king Malachy, and the men of Meath. On the other side was Maelmordha, the men of Leinster, Dublin Vikings, and a Viking fleet from the Orkney Islands. Medieval writers greatly exaggerated the size of the armies, but even modern historians’ more modest estimated total of five thousand troops makes it one of the largest battles yet fought in Ireland. At the last minute, Malachy refused to fight, but the battle began without him on Good Friday morning and lasted most of the day.

Today, Brian Boru is best remembered for something he did not do. He did not drive the Vikings out of Ireland at Clontarf, but the battle did mark a turning point in Irish history. Not for centuries, not until the invasion of the Bruces from Scotland in the fourteenth century and the rebellion of Hugh O’Neill at the end of the fifteenth, would anyone again think of Ireland as a whole rather than as a collection of fractious kingdoms.

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