Historians interested in the battle
of Clontarf are fortunate in having independent source material from both the victors and losers of the conflict. This occurrence, very rare for the eleventh century, nevertheless has not meant that there has been a unanimous agreement as to what occurred that day, nor the significance of the battle. Far from it. From a popular conception of the battle as a national victory of the Irish
against invading foreigners to seeing the conflict as merely an episode in Irish domestic wars, Clontarf has been the subject of controversy for nearly a thousand years.
The Irish sources for the battle include the following:
1. The Annals of Ulster. This, argues John Ryan, is the most reliable text. It is contemporary, and uses Meath and Armagh material. The facts of the entry are terse, but concur very well with other sources. Its importance lies in that the annalist does not seem to be concerned with creating myths either positive or negative, about the protagonists.
2. The Annals of Loch Ce. These annals, compiled and owned by Brian Mac Dermot in 1592 from material that probably was contemporary in 1014 opens with the battle of Clontarf. These annals are a Munster source and favour the Dal Cais, but even so, the fact that they include speeches and legendary episodes means that they have allowed subsequent historians to add colour to the otherwise brief comments of the Annals of Ulster.
3. The Annals of Innisfallen are surprisingly unhelpful, given that they were both contemporary and from Munster. Their entry for Clontarf is little more than a list of the slain dynasts.
4. Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh is a very interesting source, being a romantic lay with historical material. The battle of Clontarf gains very extensive treatment in the work, as the author is intending it to entertain the ears of the descendents of Brian Boruma. The writer seems to have been a contemporary of the events and includes some genuine historical material among the wealth of adjective. For example, in Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh it is said that the battle began at dawn and ended at sunset, and that the peak times of ebb and flow of the tides that day corresponded to the sun rising and setting. In 1867 Professor Haughton of TCD calculated the time of the full tides for Good Friday, 1014, and confirmed that they matched the times of sunrise and sunset. This indicates that some of the material in Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh is historically valuable.
5. The Annals of Clonmacnoise have a fairly lengthy and vivid description of the battle. However it is written in a spirit of glorification of Brian as a liberator against the Danes. This makes it quite unreliable, particularly with regard to the claimed treacherous role of Mael Seachlainn (which will be discussed later).
6. The Annals of the Four Masters has short entry which differs from other accounts in assigning a positive role to Mael Seachlainn.
Njal's Saga is a critical source from the Viking world. This is a thirteenth century saga but despite the distance from the events it describes, it independently confirms much of the information in the Annals of Ulster. A general point to note about historical value of the Icelandic saga's is, as Peter Sawyer puts it, that they "are not, however, entirely worthless, for the saga writers used and sometimes quote poetry of the Viking age. This skaldic verse, as it is called, was composed in Scandinavia from the second half of the ninth century and rather later in Iceland and much of it was remembered in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the sagas were being written." Finally Orkneyinga Saga gives a small mention to the battle which only adds a tiny detail about Earl Sigurd.
What, then, do these sources tell us about the battle of Clontarf?
On Good Friday, 1014, at dawn, when the tide was at its height, the two forces met in battle just to the north of Dublin, within sight of the city walls. One the one side was the Munster based high king Brian Boruma with his son Murchad and grandson Tordelbach. Mael Seachlinn, Brian's recent rival from the Southern Ui Neill, but now an ally, brought his forces. The many other Irish kings who owed Brian service were noticeable by their absence, particularly the Ui Choncobhar of Connacht. According to Njal's Saga, Ospak of Man brought 10 ships to serve Brian due to a rivalry with the Viking leader Brodir.
Brian's opponents were an alliance of the Dublin Ostmen with their neighbours, the Irish of Leinster, led by Maelmordha and two powerful contingents from the Vikings of the islands: jarl Sigurd the Stout from Orkney and jarl Brodir of Man.
The Vikings were noted for their armour, with nearly all the terser annal entries commenting on the breastplates or armour of the Vikings. The Vikings brought warriors encased in "polished, strong and triple-plated, glittering armour of refined iron, or of cool uncorroding brass" according to the more wordy Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh.
Drawn up in sections, the battle took place over the course of the day, until at dusk the Leinstermen and Vikings broke and those who fell back towards the sea were victims of a great slaughter. However losses on Brian's side were heavy also from the "counter-shock", with Brodir's men killing Brian himself. Murchad and Tordelbach also fell in the fighting along with a host of lesser nobles.
The losses by the Laigin and Viking forces are put at 6,000 by the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Loch Ce, at 6,600 by Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh. Brodir was captured and killed. Sigurd having seen two of his standard bearers fall, tucked away his raven banner against his body, and his death fulfilled the fatalistic Viking prophecy regarding the banner. Mael Morda, king of the Laigin was also killed.
This much is can be stated with some confidence, having at least two independent sources from the above as confirmation. The exact details of Brian's death are less certain as we are given different versions - some of which are clearly attempts to emphasise the saintliness of the high king.
One controversy that began very soon after the battle concerns the role of Mael Seachlinn and the warriors of Midhe. According to Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh the men of Midhe put a ditch between themselves and the enemy, deliberately holding back from the battle and letting Brian's army take the losses. On the opposite side are the Annals of the Four Masters, who say that "the forces of the Northmen were afterwards routed by dint of battling, bravery, and striking by Mealseachlainn, from the Tolka to Ath Claith."
Are we in a position to make a judgement between the view of Meal Seachlinn as a traitor or as the saviour of the battle? Unfortunately neither the Annals of Ulster or Njal's saga give any comment on the role of Mael Seachlinn - which in itself suggests that neither extreme may be the reality. A fact worth bearing in mind is that if there was one winner of the battle of Clontaft it was Mael Seachlin, who was able to regain the high kingship from the Dal Cais. The limited list of losses from the men of Midhe, in what was an extremely long and bloody contest does suggest that while their role may not have been treacherous, it was more limited than that of their allies. The more general controversy over the battle of Clontarf is not however in the details of the event, but rather in the significance of the battle. As early as 1528 writers were interpreting the battle as a great turning point in the struggle of Ireland against foreign invasion. In that year the Annals of Connacht describe Torrdelbach O'Brien son of Tadc as having been "the true heir of Brian Boromha mac Cinneidig in sustaining war against the Galls".
The 1867 editor of Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh points out however that "the Norsemen of Ireland were not seriously affected in their position by the victory of Clontarf. They retained their hold of the great seaports, and the Irish annals, for some years continue to record the usual amount of conflict between them and native tribes."
In 1920 Eoin mac Neill attempted to refute the view that Clontarf was not a national conflict of invaders against the Irish by reference to the Norse sagas. He argued that "the kingdom of Ireland was the prize which king Sigtrygg of Dublin offered to Earl Sigurd of the Orkneys. It was to win Ireland that the Norsemen came from distant Iceland and from Normandy..."
The problem with this argument, as John Ryan pointed out in 1938, is that the kingdom offered to Sigurd was in all likelihood not that of Ireland but Dublin. Although non-contemporary chronicles tended to exaggerate the status of the Viking leaders - making them rulers over York or even provinces of Denmark - the more reliable chronicles and Njal's Saga show that they were local jarls, of Orkney and Man. Their following would have been in the order of some 20 ships.
So, today, the consensus among historians has returned to a view that Clontarf should be seen best in the context of Irish politics - it was a battle brought about by a Leinster - Dublin alliance against the high kingship of Brian. Certainly this view fits with the pattern of Annal entries. It also avoids a crude division between the two sides along national lines that the participants would not have been conscious of. Irish warriors fought on both sides of the battle, as, in all likelihood did Vikings.
However, it is worth noting that Clontarf takes place at around the time that Viking influence reaches its peak. The following year an Anglo-Danish Empire is created by Knut's invasion of England. The Norse settlements in Normandy and Russia were thriving. Furthermore, the battle of Clontarf quickly became a source of legend for the Viking world, indicating that it was seen as a significant moment in their history. Again, there no other occasion when Viking forces gather as they did for the battle of Clontarf.
So a broad interpretation of the battle of Clontarf, while rejecting it as a simplistic national conflict, should nonetheless be willing to see the battle as providing a significant check to Viking ambitions in Ireland.
Sources in translation:
Annals of Ulster ed. Gearoid Mac Niocaill, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1983.
Annals of Loch Ce ed. Wm. M. Hennessy, Longman (London, 1871).
Annals of Connacht ed. A. M. Freeman, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1970.
Annals of Inisfallen, ed. Sean Mac Airt, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1951.
Annals of Clonmacnoise, trans. Coneel Mageoghagan, ed. Rev. D. Murphy, Dublin University Press, 1896.
Njal's Saga, trans. M. Magnusson and H. Palsson, Penguin (London, 1960).
Orkneyinga Saga, trans. H. Palsson and P. Edwards, Hogarth (London, 1978).
The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, J. H. Todd, trans and ed., Longman (London, 1867).
T. M. Charles-Edwards, Irish warfare before 1100, in A Military History of Ireland ed. T. Bartlett and K. Jeffery, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1996) 26-52.
Sean Duffy, Ireland in the Middle Ages, Gill and Macmillan (Dublin, 1997).F. Engels, History of Ireland in Marx-Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, Lawrence and Wishart (London, 1978) 263-283.
Eoin MacNeill, Phases of Irish History, M. H. Gill and Son (Dublin, 1920).
G. Jones, A history of the Vikings, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1984).
Donncha O Corrain, Ireland before the Normans, Gill and Macmillan (Dublin, 1972).John Ryan, The battle of Clontarf, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland, 68, (1938).
P. H. Sawyer, The age of the Vikings, Edward Arnold Ltd. (London, 1971).