History of the Vikings
there a horrible and bloody battle took place, a slaughter in which the Dublin army was almost annihilated and the men of Leinster routed. The Dalcassians and the Munster force likewise suffered heavily, but when the beaten remnant of the enemy had scattered in flight Dublin lay an easy prey to Brian and at Christmas he took up his headquarters in the town. Sigtryg of the Silken Beard was king, and he, after seeking in vain for succour from the princes of north Ireland, returned to Dublin and submitted to Brian who thereupon agreed to maintain the Gaill in their appointed territory on the condition that they should pledge themselves to fight for him. Moreover, Brian gave his daughter in marriage to Sigtryg, and it was probably at this time that he himself wedded the woman Gormflaith, sister of the king of Leinster, who had been the wife of Olaf Cuaran though she was now the divorced wife of Mael Seachlinn himself.
The vanquished Gaill, therefore, despite the overthrow of their army, were not allowed to remain as unforgiving enemies of the king of Munster; instead they were offered Brian's friendship and protection, and instructed to recruit their strength so that they might henceforward be counted upon as welcome and trustworthy allies. This clever and conciliatory move on the part of Brian, the conversion of his military supremacy into the overlordship of a friendly state, was, of necessity, prelude to the inevitable struggle between Munster and the North, for the strategical importance of Dublin was enormous and the foreign colony had long been subject to Mael Seachlinn. Brian must have known that a clash was now inevitable and, accordingly, at the end of this same year (999) he himself took the initiative, invading the kingdom of Tara at the head of a great army of southern Irish and reinforced by the Dublin Gaill. But the momentous conflict, a matter rather of military demonstrations and diplomatic exchanges than of battle and surrender, was short; in 1001 Brian, encamped at royal Tara itself, was demanding the submission of Mael Seachlinn, and by 1002 he had become highking of Ireland in his stead. Not all the princes of the north acknowledged his overlordship so readily as did the far-seeing and noble Mael Seachlinn and the king of Connaught, but in the end the kingdoms of Ailech and east Ulster also made their peace with him. In truth, it was no vain and empty title that his clerk gave to Brian Boru in 1004 at Armagh when he styled him Imperator Scottorum, Emperor of the Irish.
Brian as high-king gave further proof of the wise statesmanship and careful government that had already distinguished his
rule in Munster. But of his administration and peace-making, of his love of learning and tradition, and of his modest court (not at Tara or Cashel, but among his own Dalcassians at Killaloe on Loch Derg), there is no occasion to speak here. It is sufficient to note, as evidence of his power, a levying of tribute by him from Saxons, Scots, and Britons, across the sea, and to honour his ceaseless effort to unite the several peoples of Ireland in a confederacy of tranquil states under his own supreme authority.
Not that he could ever prevent, even in the years of greatest calm, those petty struggles and fights that the little kingdoms loved. But he did achieve for Ireland a certain solidarity and sense of security such as she had not known before, and this was rapidly paving the way for a substantial increase in the prosperity of the country when the general peace was rudely shattered by the rebellion of the Leinster king in 1012.
Of the beginnings of the quarrel, the journey of this king, Maelmordha, to Kincora, the evil counsel of his sister, the adventuress-queen Gormflaith, the subsequent bickering with Murchad, Brian's son, there is a close and detailed account. But no matter; it is sufficient to read how the angry Maelmordha rode home to call an assembly of all the Leinster nobles so that they might hear of the dishonour that he conceived himself to have suffered, an insult, he said, not only to himself but to his province. For this assembly decided upon revolt; an alliance was made with the Gaill at Dublin, and, as though this were not enough to endanger Ireland, the Leinstermen urged the king of Ailech to civil war in the north. Thereupon the whole country was soon in a turmoil of fighting and intrigue. Yet, at first, old Brian himself remained aloof, trusting that patience and mediation might restore order; but in the summer of 1013, when hopes of conciliating the rebels were vanishing, Murchad, his son, was sent to devastate Leinster. Maelmordha fled to Dublin, and there in the autumn came Brian to join Murchad and lay siege to the town. Until Christmas was Dublin invested, but the Gaill and Leinster men held out and Brian eventually withdrew his army, it is said because of the difficulty of providing food for his men in these winter months.
But the rebels were growing in strength. Gormflaith had left Brian, and now safe at the court of her son, Sigtryg of the Silken Beard, she was busy plotting the destruction of the highking. Sigtryg was sent overseas to seek help, for that there was to be serious war could no longer be doubted, and the chief ally he secured was Sigurd, the strong jarl of the Orkneys, whose
mother was Irish. The aid of this great man was won by the promise of Gormflaith's hand and the throne of Dublin, and this same promise, dishonourably made anew, lured Brodir, another viking chief, and his fleet of twenty ships, from Man to Dublin. And the word of the impending battle was spread far afield, and from the Hebrides, from Cornwall and Wales, from Normandy and Francia, and from Scandinavia, there came vikings to save Dublin in this hour of danger and so to preserve for the viking world a necessary and profitable trading-mart.
Not all the adventurers invited to come to the assistance of the Dublin Gaill gave their help. Olaf Ospak, Brodir's brother, who was likewise in the Isle of Man, refused to fight against so good a king as Brian and straightway went off with ten ships to give the high-king information of this gathering of the forces against him and to join his little force to Brian's. But, nevertheless, the assembly of the vikings at Dublin meant a formidable increase to the rebel strength and was a safe index of the gravity of the coming struggle.
Yet the challenge that this gathering represented was inspired by the hatred of Gormflaith and the jealousy of Maelmordha, and was directed against the personal authority of Brian. The viking detachments of the great rebel army cannot at any time have hoped for, or threatened, an outright conquest of the whole Irish state. Not that Irishmen had any illusions as to the possible consequences of a determined and well-directed viking invasion in this the very year of Svein's great triumph over England, for they knew that the kingdom of Saxon Æthelred was at last overthrown by the Danish armies; but it must have been plain that here in Ireland, despite the thrill and stirring of the viking world, and the grand rally of the adventurers in Dublin, the personal relations of the three leaders of the Gaill, Sigtryg, Sigurd, and Brodir (each of the last two promised the kingdom of Dublin), and the Irishman Maelmordha, were not of the kind that fitted them for a serious attempt to secure for any one of them the overlordship of Ireland. The re-winning of Dublin, freed of the Munster king's control, as a safe and permanent trading-station for the vikings of the northern waters, and a full licence for Maelmordha to rule Leinster as he would, these alone were the objectives of the allied rebels, and if the great battle that now took place was decisive, for a fight between so great a mustering of the vikings and the almost national army of the Irish under Brian must inevitably have been so, it was decisive not in the sense that victory to the rebels would leave Ireland in the hands
of a Norse king, but because the aftermath of victory would be the horrors and confusions consequent upon the overthrowing of the stable government of Brian.
This much the high-king must have realized. The security of the Irish kingdom, the laws he had made, the peace he had won, all these were threatened if Leinster seceded from the confederacy he governed, if Dublin became once more a powerful and independent colony of the foreigners. And since he had now information of the numbers gathered against him, he prepared to do battle for his country at once and with all his strength.
It was not only the full force of Munster that the aged Brian led to battle. In these spring weeks of peril in 1014 he roused Ireland to arms, and so there came the chivalrous Mael Seachlinn to join him with the army of the middle kingdom, the chieftains of Connaught and of Oriel with their men, and drafts even of the Scottish Irish. It was, indeed, except for rebellious Leinster and the neutrality of the Ui Neill of the north, a national army that Brian commanded when, under seventy banners and probably some 20,000 strong, his great host was at last concentrated near Grangegorman and Glasnevin, close to Dublin but on the north bank of the Liffey. This was in the week before Palm Sunday, and the viking fleets were already assembled.
Brian, on his arrival, had plundered and burnt in the Dublin territory, but for a while the battle itself was delayed. At last, however, on the morning of April the 23rd, the vikings under Sigurd and Brodir advanced to battle-position and the Leinstermen under Maelmordha, with the Dublin vikings under Sigtryg's brother Dubhgall, issued from the fortress, crossed the Liffey, and arrayed themselves in front of the Irish army. Brian's army was established in the narrow tongue of land between the Liffey and the Tolka, and since it faced the sea it was threatening not so much the town and fort of Dublin (for this lay on the south bank of the river) but the vikings newly arrived from overseas, and especially that precious and vulnerable part of their fighting force, the fleet, now riding at anchor close to the Tolka mouth and Clontarf. Sigurd, if he would not lose his boats, his sole hope of escape should he be worsted in battle, must fight with them behind him; but by so covering the Clontarf Weir, as he was thus compelled to do, he committed his side to operations on a battle-front of nearly two miles in length, for this is the distance between the Weir and the bridge over the Liffey to Dublin, the other vulnerable spot in this far-flung and dangerous line. It is true that the crest
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of high ground where today are Mountjoy Square and Rutland Square in modern north Dublin makes the centre of this line a position of some importance, and this was the posting of Maelmordha and his Leinstermen; but it was upon the wings, miserably and perilously stationed on the lower ground at some distance from Maelmordha, that the fate of the battle hung. Here, on the right, Sigurd and Brodir covered their fleets from a position on the extreme Tolka side of the line, while the left wing, composed of the Dublin Gaill, guarded the Liffey bridge-head. (1) Sigtryg himself did not come out to fight, but remained in Dublin.
The strange thing is that Brian, likewise, would take no part in the battle; but it was Good Friday that the vikings chose for the combat and on that holy day the great king would not take up arms. Instead he gave the command of his armies to his son Murchad, himself retiring with a few warriors to 'Tomar's Wood', perhaps somewhere in the north of Phibsborough, and there he spread a skin whereon to kneel and pray, leaving the anxious watching of the battle to his companions.
The disposition of the Irish forces was naturally over a front of no less extent than that of their adversaries, but some detachments had the advantage of prepared positions and the whole army could afford to await the enemy attack. Murchad himself, in command of the Dalcassians, opposed Sigurd and Brodir on the extreme left, and he had Tordelbach, Brian's young grandson, on his right. In the centre were other battalions of Munstermen, with Mael Seachlinn and the southern Ui Neill close at hand in an entrenched position. On the right of the line, opposite the Dublin vikings, were the men of Connaught and the Isle of Man viking, Olaf Ospak, with his contingent.
The Battle of Clontarf, for that is the name of this famous fight, began in the early morning with a personal combat between two champions, one from Brodir's division and the other from Murchad's. But this was quickly followed by an advance on the part of Maelmordha and the centre, and the battle-clash of Murchad and Brodir. At first the rebels seemed irresistible.
1. For the topography of the Battle of Clontarf, and an excellent account of the great fight, see J. H. Lloyd, New Ireland Review, XXVIII, 1907-8, pp. 35, 87. I have followed Mr. Lloyd's account here, but it should be observed that the disposition of the rival armies in the field is largely conjectural. I find it hard to believe that the battle-rules of the early eleventh century did not demand the massing of the rebel army, even though this meant leaving the main viking fleet and the Liffey bridge exposed, instead of the reckless distribution of the force across the two-mile strip. Yet I agree that the various descriptions of the battle certainly suggest that the rebels were split into three detachments posted at a distance from one another.