At dawn on 23rd April, 1014, Brian Boru looked out from his encampment at the long enemy lines facing him. Brian Boru, high king of Ireland, was at the head of an army of 7,000 men.
Against them were an equal number of enemy soldiers, Irish troops mixed with foreign invaders from the east. The Irish kings of Dublin and Leinster had made a pact with the Vikings on the isles of Orkney and Man, and these fierce soldiers swelled the enemy ranks.
By the time the sun set on that fateful day, the future of Ireland had been decided. Amidst the slaughter it was the Irish under Brian Boru who famously emerged victorious, routing the lesser kings and the Vikings and defeating them utterly.
But at what cost?
Born in 941 AD in Munster, a kingdom in southern Ireland, Brian Boru fought his way to become first King of Munster and then High King of Ireland. It was a lifelong fight, and Brian spent more the 60 years achieving his goal.
Brian Boru was born into a powerful family of north Munster known as the Dál gCais, the youngest of twelve brothers. His father was a local king on Ireland’s west coast.
Ireland at this time was a restless place with many local chieftains making war on each other and jockeying for position. Brian fought alongside his father to secure his kingdom, and when his father died Brian fought for his brother, Mathgamain.
Mathgamain was able to win the kingdom of Munster, and when he died in 976 AD Brian Boru became king of Munster after him. By driving the Norse invaders out of Munster, Brian was able to secure his throne.
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With his internal problems dealt with, Brian Boru then turned his attention to the other kingdoms of Ireland. After 20 years of campaigning and fighting for position against the other kings, Brian eventually won the high kingship for himself in 1002 AD.
Much of his time as high king was spent controlling the lesser kingdoms of Ireland, and two such rebellious kings faced him at Clontarf. Dublin and Leinster had chosen to ally themselves with the Viking invaders against their own high king that day.
When he faced the enemy army at the battle of Clontarf, Brian had been high king for more than a decade. An old man, he had united Ireland and saw this moment as a chance to expel the foreign invaders and change the course of history.
The Battle of Clontarf
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The fighting that day was described as particularly loud, brutal, and harrowing. The Vikings and the rebellious Irish kings were fighting to win a kingdom, and the forces of Brian Boru to defend their homes.
After a battle which lasted all through the day, with the dying of the light the rebel lines broke and Brian’s forces were able to push them back. Trapped by the sea, their army was crushed and thousands were killed.
A famous poem of the 13th century portrayed Brian Boru as a Christ-like personality. The poem says the following:
“On Good Friday, Brian was killed
Defending the hostaged Irish…
Just as Christ without sin was killed
Defending the children of Adam”
For Brian Boru had refused to fight on Good Friday. Found praying in his tent by Brodir, leader of the Viking forces from the Isle of Man, Brian was cut down and died even as his army won the day.
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Brian’s son Murchad and grandson Toidelbach were also killed in the battle, and as many as half his soldiers also died to win freedom for Ireland. In all, it is estimated that more than 10,000 men died at Clontarf.
A New Ireland
After the war, the power of the Vikings in Ireland and the kingdom of Dublin were broken and shattered into pieces. At the cost of his life and that of his heirs, Brian had become a national hero, turning back the Viking incursion and uniting Ireland for the people who lived there.
At least, that is the popular story about the battle of Clontarf. Modern interpretations of the battle see things a little differently, and there is much debate about who Brian was really fighting that day.
Was this the final blow against the Viking incursions, triumphantly sending the invaders back into the sea? Or was it an internal military action against rebellious lesser kings, where the Vikings were involved more a mercenaries (as indeed they appear to have fought on both sides)?
Indeed, the man who had killed Brian, named Brodir, had travelled to Ireland with his brother, Ospak. Brodir would fight for the Viking army, but Ospak chose to fight with Brian and the Irish.
What can be certain however is that Brian Boru was able to unite Ireland under his rule and remove the Viking presence from his shores. Was Clontarf the famous last victory which drove the invaders away for all time? Maybe not, but it was still a final victory for this man, hailed as a great leader and high king.
And with his death at the battle, the mythologizing could begin.
Top Image: A victory for all time, or a tale that grew in the telling? Source: Iobard / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri