Brian Boru and the Naas princess with three husbands – a look-back to the Battle of Clontarf a thousand years ago
by Liam Kenny
There is much talk about the decade of centenaries which will mark the calendar over the coming years. The media is full of historians, journalists and public representatives earnestly discussing how to navigate the sensitivities involved in commemorating the centenaries of such formative events in the story of modern Ireland as the Easter Rising of 1916, the First World War and especially the Battle of the Somme also in 1916, and the convening of the first Dáil Eireann in 1919.
Indeed the first of the major centenaries is already filling the airwaves with programmes and seminars looking back on the 1913 lockout which pitted Dublin’s captains of industry against the workers who were fighting for a basic level of workplace entitlements. The heavy-handed response of the police to the striking workers inspired James Connolly to recruit the Irish Citizen Army to defend the workers on the picket lines. The Citizen Army would form the armed nucleus of the rebel forces that four years later triggered the Easter Rising.
While reflection on all of these events is necessary there is another anniversary coming up which spans a much longer timescale and that is the millennial anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 which falls next year. Popular awareness of the Battle of Clontarf centres on the old fables version of how Irish forces overwhelmed the rapacious horn-helmeted Vikings who had been plundering the monasteries and pushed them back into the sea. The Irish victory was at the cost of the massacre of Brian Boru, the old Irish high king, who was surprised in his tent by a fleeing Viking.
While this is the outline of the story as told down though the generations there are some myths perpetuated by the story-telling and imagery – the first being the horns on the Viking helmets which are the product of an imaginative illustrator in a more modern era and not supported by archaeological finds of Viking battle dress.
Discerning the truth surrounding an event which happened a thousand years ago is always going to be a difficult task not least because there is not the kind of record. which would satisfy the demands of modern history writing where the use of sources created at the same time as the events under study is central to authenticity.
The challenge of trying to reconstruct a credible account of the Battle of Clontarf has now been taken on by historian Darren McGettigan whose book “The Battle of Clontarf – Good Friday 1014” published by Four Courts Press is well timed to become a resource for millennial commemorations of the great battle.
The author is frank about the difficulty of relying on the folklore for details of the battle. Many of the traditional saga accounts of Clontarf were written centuries after the event. Others were composed with a view to boosting the reputation of one or other of the combatant leaders. Mr. McGettigan highlights the difficulty for historians attempting to explore sources from the centuries prior to the advent of reliable records when he writes of the old sagas: “They may contain accurate pieces of information but it is impossible now to know which are legendary and what is factual.”
However by casting his net of sources wider than the traditional accounts he has discerned some common trends in alternative accounts of the battle. He has identified a chronicle written by an Irish monk living in Germany around 1072 which is much closer in time to 1014 than some of the more popular sagas written centuries afterwards. He has also tracked down references in the writing of a monk living in the lands now known as France before 1034 which again is relatively close to the date in question.
By sifting such evidence and looking for consistent themes the author puts forward a sequence of events for the battle which represents a strong claim to being as near to credibility as a lapse of a thousand years will allow.
Some features of Clontarf discerned by the author may come as a surprise to those reared on the simplistic “Irish versus the foreigner” accounts of Clontarf. The enemy force was not only comprised of Vikings but in true Irish style involved Irish fighting Irish. Alongside the Vikings at Clontarf was a contingent of Leinster men including, according to the author, some drawn from the “north-eastern plains of Kildare.”
Relations between the Leinster men and the Vikings had not always been so comradely. The author recalls how a century earlier a leader of the Dublin Vikings had defeated the Leinster men at a battle fought “at a longphort near Leixlip on the Liffey.” This reference reinforces the status of Leixlip as one of the most prominent Viking inspired place names in the country with the name being derived from the Old Norse for “salmon leap” which was written as “lax lip.”
Perhaps the most interesting character, aside from the battle leaders on either side, in the story of Irish-Norse relationships is that of Gormlaith, daughter of the Leinster king Murchad (died AD972) who most likely lived at Naas, seat of the kings of Leinster.
Gormlaith was clearly a woman of some stamina as she married the king of Dublin and, when he died, married the high-king of Meath whom she appears to have divorced. Undaunted she moved on to a third husband, the celebrated Brian Boru, high king of Ireland but that marriage too ended in divorce. The author quotes a poet who had a wry take on Gormlaith’s marital conquests: “Three leaps did Gormlaith perform which no other woman shall do till Doomsday ….”
While the context and dynamics of the Battle of Clontarf form a gripping centrepiece to the book, such insights into the colourful life and times of the leading figures from the Viking era make the book an accessible overview of the years when Irish and Norse made war and made peace almost a thousand years ago.
Book reviewed: The Battle of Clontarf, Good Friday, 1014’ by Darren McGettigan, and published by Four Courts Press – for more information see www.fourcourtspress.ie.
Liam Kenny takes a look back to the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 and its Kildare involvement through Naas princess, Gormlaith, daughter of a Leinster king
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