The Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

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The Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

The Battle of Clontarf (Irish: Cath Chluain Tarbh) took place on 23 April 1014 between the forces of Brian Boru and the forces led by the King of Leinster, Máel Mórda mac Murchada: composed mainly of his own men, Viking mercenaries from Dublin and the Orkney Islands led by his cousin Sigtrygg, as well as the one rebellious king from the province of Ulster. It ended in a rout of the Máel Mórda’s forces, along with the death of Brian, who was killed by a few Norsemen who were fleeing the battle and stumbled upon his tent. After the battle, Ireland returned to a fractious status quo between the many small, separate kingdoms that had existed for some time.


(Brian Boru – The Last Great King of Ireland)

Brian Boru was the last great High King of Ireland and perhaps the greatest military leader the country has ever known. Brian Boru was born Brian Mac Cennétig (Mac Kennedy). He mother was sister to the mother of Conor, the King of Connaught.

His brother, Mahon, had become King of Munster in 951, upon the death of their father, Cennétig. Together they fought against the invading Norsemen, who had imposed taxes in Munster. This struggle eventually led to the murder of Mahon in 975 by the Ostermen (Norse). Brian avenged his brother’s death by killing the King of the Ostermen of Limerick, King Ímar.

From this point onwards Brian held Munster as his own, including the pivotal trade-centre of Limerick. He marched into Connaught and Leinster and joined forces with Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill in 997. Together they divided Ireland between them.

Although the two kings had reached an agreement where they recognized each other’s reign over their respective halves of the country, Brian attacked Máel Sechnaill’s territory constantly, which would forced him to resign his land to Brian.

The Norse settlers in Dublin especially moved against Brian but were defeated at Glen Máma where the King of Leinster was captured. The King of Dublin, Sitric Silkenbeard, was soon defeated too.

In 1002 Brian demanded of his comrade Mael Sechnaill that he recognize him as King of Ireland. Mael agreed, partially because many of his own people viewed Brian as a hero who had restored Ireland to greatness after the Viking invasions. The rule of the UíNéill’s was thus at an end as a non-O’Neill was proclaimed as King. The O’Neill’s had been rulers for over 600 years.

He earned his name as ‘Brian of the Tributes’ (Brian Boru) by collecting tributes from the minor rulers of Ireland and used the monies raised to restore monasteries and libraries that had been destroyed during the invasions.

Despite the fact that Brian Boru ruled most of Ireland since 1002, the island remined highly fractious and the title of “High King” had been largely ceremonial. Brian looked to change this, and unite the island, which he set about doing over a period of years.

In 1012 the king of Leinster, Máel Mórda mac Murchada, rose in revolt. His attempts were quickly thwarted when Brian arranged a series of cross-marriages, giving his daughter to Sigtrygg Silkbeard, leader of the Dublin Vikings, and himself marrying Sigtrygg’s mother and Máel Mórda’s sister, Gormlaith.

However this alliance was destined not to last, and in 1013 Máel Mórda again went to  Sigtrygg for help after being admonished by Gormlaith for accepting Brian’s rule. This time Sigtrygg was ready to fight, and various Irish clans who were envious of Brian quickly joined him to wage war on Brian Boru and his followers at Clontarf in Dublin in 1014.

Gormlaith1Brian immediately imprisoned Gormlaith, and went on a series of raids around Dublin in order to tie down any Irish who would attempt to join the Viking forces. Meanwhile Gormlaith contacted Sigurd Lodvesson, the Viking earl of the Orkney Isles, to come to her aid. He not only agreed, but in turn contacted Brodir of the Isle of Man to join the fight. Sigurd and Brodir both planned on killing the other after the battle to take the seat of High King for themselves, while Sigtrygg was busy trying to form alliances with everyone involved in an attempt to at least retain his own seat in Dublin.

In 1014, Brian’s army had mustered and set off towards Dublin. As they approached, the Irishmen of Meath, commanded by ex-high king Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, refused to take part in the battle. This left him with 4,500 men, outnumbering the 1,000 or so under Sigtrygg, but considerably worse equipped in comparison. They arrived outside the walls of Dublin and set up camp.

That night Brian received news that the Viking forces had boarded their longships and headed out to sea, deserting Sigtrygg. This was in fact a ruse. After nightfall they turned around and landed on the beaches of Clontarf, just over a mile to the north of Dublin, in order to surprise Brian’s army the next day. At the time Dublin was only on the south shore of the River Liffey, connected to the north bank, and Clontarf, only by a single bridge. This allowed the Vikings time to disembark and prepare in relative safety.

The Battle

Battle of Clontarf

The Viking army formed up into five divisions on the field, while Sigtrygg and 1,000 of his men remained in town. Sigtrygg’s son commanded the extreme left of the line with 1,000 of the men from Dublin who decided to fight in the open. Máel Mórda added another 3,000 men from Leinster in two divisions. Although numerous, they too were poorly armed in comparison to the Vikings on either side. Sigurd’s Orkney Vikings manned the center with 1,000 men, and Brodir’s Vikings added another 1,000 or more on the right, on the beaches.

Brian BoruBrian’s forces were arranged in a similar fashion. On the right (the Viking left) were 1,000 foreign mercenaries and Manx Vikings. Next to them, 1,500 clansmen of Connacht were gathered under their kings, while more than 2,000 Munster warriors under Brian’s son Murchad continued the front, flanked by 1,400 Dal Caissans on the extreme left led by Murchad’s 15-year-old son, Tordhelbach (Turlouch), and Brian’s brother, Cuduiligh. Off to the right and several hundred yards to the rear stood Máel Sechnaill’s 1,000 men who simply watched.

The battle opened with several personal taunts between men in either line, often ending with the two men marching out into the middle of the field to enter personal battle, while the forces on either side cheered. While this went on the two groups slowly edged towards each other. They engaged early in the morning.

Battle-of Contarf-Canvas

At first the battle went the Vikings’ way, with their heavier weapons prevailing over their opponents as everyone had expected. This advantage also served Brian, whose Viking mercenaries on his right slowly pushed back the forces facing them. On the left, Brodir himself led the charge and gained ground, until he met the warrior Wolf the Quarrelsome, brother of King Brian. Although Wolf was unable to break Brodir’s armor, he knocked him to the ground and Brodir fled to hide. This left the now leaderless Viking force facing Murchad’s forces, who considered themselves the “king’s own” (containing many of Brian’s more distant relatives) and by the afternoon Brodir’s forces were fleeing to their ships.

In the center things were going more the Vikings’ way. Both Sigurd’s and Máel Mórda’s forces were hammering into the Munster forces. However Sigurd, according to legend, carried a “magical” standard into battle which drew the Irish warriors to it, eventually forcing their way in and killing the bearer. Although the standard was supposed to guarantee a victory for the bearer’s forces, it also guaranteed the bearer’s death. No one would pick it up due to its reputation, so Sigurd did and was quickly killed.

By the end of the day, after several mutual pauses for rest, the Vikings found themselves with both flanks failing, Sigurd dead, and everyone exhausted. The beaches in front of the ships were already lost, and many men took to trying to swim to the ships further offshore, drowning in the process. The battle was now clearly going Brian’s way, and the Dublin Vikings decided to flee to the town. At this point Máel Sechnaill decided to re-enter the battle, and cut them off from the bridge. The result was a rout, with every “invading” Viking leader being killed in the battle.

Meanwhile Brodir, hiding in the woods near Dublin, noticed Brian praying in his tent. Gathering several followers they ran into the tent and killed him and his retainers. Then they retreated, with Brodir yelling, Now let man tell man that Brodir felled Brian. According to Viking accounts, he was eventually tracked, captured and gruesomely killed by Wolf the Quarrelsome with whom he had clashed earlier on the battlefield.

Of the 6,500 to 7,000 Vikings and allied forces, an estimated 6,000, including almost all the leaders, were killed. Irish losses were at least 4,000, including their king and most of his sons. There were in fact some sons of Brian Boru left after the battle of Clontarf. Two of his sons, Donnogh and Teige both were heirs of Brian and after their father’s death in 1014, were at debate against each other which started with mild quarrelsome and ended with both brothers coming together in 1018 and killing Donell McDuff Davereann. The two sons of Brian did not inherit the throne right after their father was slain. It was Moyleseachlin (Irish: Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill) – from whom Brian once took power in the heated moment before the Battle of Clontarf – who regained power once again in Ireland.


With the Irish now leaderless, and the power of the Dublin Vikings as a political force broken, Ireland soon returned to a series of bloody factional fighting. However things had changed as a result of the battle, with Viking and Gaelic culture no longer contesting power. After a number of years this led to a lasting peace. The victory had finally subjugated the Norse presence in Ireland who were henceforth considered subordinate to the Kingships of Ireland. Their military threat had been ended and they retreated to the urban centers of Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, Wexford, and Cork. They eventually became completely hibernicized and integrated into Gaelic culture.

After his death and the death of one of his sons, his remaining sons, Tadg and Donnchad, were unable to assume the kingship — which was assumed once more by Mael Sechnaill. He reigned for 8 years, during which time he fought 25 battles both great and small against his enemies. When he died in 1022, the role of High King of Ireland became more of a position in name only, rather than that of a powerful ruler. His enemies were not the Norsemen, but his fellow Irishmen from other kingdoms.


Sigtrygg, who had watched the battle with Gormlaith from Dublin, on the south bank of the River Liffey, and with the Irish army melting away the next day, ended up as the only “winner” of the contest, continuing his rule in Dublin until his death in 1042.

The Kingdom of Meath also benefitted from the fact that its warriors suffered few casualties, and managed to come from the battlefield in a much stronger position, with most of its neighbors, including the Dublin Vikings, all incapable of launching further advances. However the series of wars had resulted in a fragmented political landscape, which could not unite under the old High King.

For nearly 100 years following the death of Brian, rulers of powerful provincial kingdoms fought bitterly for supremacy. However none of them had any lasting success. In 1106, Turlough O’Connor became king of Connacht. He was a skillful warrior who strengthened his kingdom by erecting fortresses. He built bridges over the River Shannon, so that he could attack the other provinces swiftly, and he successfully used fleets of warships in naval battles. O’Connor tried to weaken his rivals by dividing their kingdoms. He divided Munster and Meath among a number of weaker kings. For a time, he was the most powerful king in Ireland.

O’Connor died in 1156. After his death, Murtagh MacLoughlin, king of the northeastern land of Ulster, made himself king of Ireland. Ten years later, MacLoughlin died, and Turlough’s son, Rory O’Connor, became the last native king of Ireland.


Religious Revival

The period after the Viking invasion was a time of religious recovery, despite the lack of stable political control. Church leaders reformed the Irish Church and reorganized it into dioceses.

A church assembly called the Synod of Kells in 1152 divided the country into 36 dioceses, grouped into 4 provinces under the archbishops of Armagh, Dublin, Cashel, and Tuam. Saint Malachy of Armagh was the greatest of the religious reformers and introduced the Cistercian Order into Ireland. The Cistercians emphasize prayer, study, and manual labor. In 1142, the first Irish Cistercian monastery was founded in Louth.