Pat Keenan re-evaluates our Irish Christian King
I don’t know of it’s still the case but when I was a boy the year ‘1014′ was etched on our memories, the Battle of Clontarf, when the Irish Christian King Brian Boru drove the pagan Vikings out of Ireland and poor Brian died, murdered by a wicked Viking as he prayed in his tent. Or so the Christian Brothers told us. Hang on, in the previous ‘Dublin Dossier’ we celebrated the return of the replica of a Viking warship built in Dublin 28 years after the Clontarf battle. Dated in chronological order the original ship was built in 1042 and all was further verified from excavations in Dublin from the 1970s that Dublin all those years ago had one of the largest Viking shipbuilding harbours capable of handling up to 200 warships. So the Vikings weren’t driven out, as they say, they became more Irish than the Irish themselves.
As with most myths, it was not so simple and while that battle was won by Brian Boru’s side, it was ultimately unsuccessful. Turns out the Battle of Clontarf was more a domestic squabble with local Viking involvement, it was never simply between the Irish and the Vikings. These were complicated times in Ireland. The country was very rural, very divided and ruled by local chieftains with varying degrees of power and alliances. In 1002 Brien Boru would have been powerful enough to be a major contender, emerging from Mythand on the mouth of the Shannon he managed to subdue the neighbouring Vikings who had founded Limerick, won the kingship of Munster and later defeated the Leinster chieftains and the Dublin Norse, who controlled a sizeable stretch of seacoast from the mouth of the River Boyne down to Arklow.
In essence the Battle of Clontarf was short, lasted all of Good Friday 1014, making it sort of sacred to the Brothers. It had several Irish chieftains in Leinster fighting alongside Vikings from Dublin, many of whom at this stage had converted to Christianity. All under the command of Viking King Sitric Silkbeard who augmented his Irish followers with a few more Vikings from the Hebrides and the Isle of Man.
Brian Boru at the time of the battle was in his seventies, old then in a time of much shorter life expectancies. Unlike the myth that he led the battle, sword in hand fighting man to man, he led but didn’t take take part in the actual fighting. He spent much of the time, not in a tent but in a covered trench where later in the final hours of the battle, he was killed by a fleeing Viking mercenary called Brodir – incidentally mercenarie’s brother Óspak fought on the side of Brian Boru
In the years before the Battle of Clontarf, Brian Boru in 997 made an alliance with the then High King of Ireland, Malachy of Meath. In 999 Brian Boru took command of Dublin, and oddly in retrospect, restored the Norse King Sitric Silkbeard to the Dublin throne – but as his subordinate. To sweeten this move he gave his daughter Sláine to Sitric in marriage and took Sitric’s mother Gormflaith, as one of his wives – seems that being a Christian king didn’t interfere with the concept of having several simultaneous wives.
Brian Boru was buried neither in Clontarf nor in his native Killaloe, but far further north in Armagh. There is a plaque on St.Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh claiming ‘on the north side of the great church was laid the body of Brian Boroimhe, slain at Clontarf. A.D.MXIV’
The Vikings: a warrior society
The Vikings were without question a warrior society. They raided our shores, plundered, killed, enslaved and deported us to foreign lands. But also they strangely established a degree of order on our own warring kingdoms. The Vikings for ill and good influenced and changed us and perhaps laid the foundations of modern Ireland. They lived amount us for generations and their genetic signature remains with us today.
It began with Ivarr, a Viking king invading our shores with a powerful contingent of Scandinavian warriors. We called them Dark Foreigners or Dark Strangers. My own birthplace, the north Dublin coastal town of Baldoyle, in Irish, Baile Dubh-Ghaill which translates as ‘town of the dark stranger. Ivarr founded a dynasties here at Dublin, in Waterford and other ports and changed the course of Irish history. Ivarr and those that followed him dominated Viking Dublin for several generations, gathered thousands of slaves and shipped them across the known world of the time. However years before Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf the Irish actually did in 902 managed to drive the Vikings into exile. However, fifteen years later Ivarr’s grandsons returned, recaptured Dublin and set about working on a plan to grow the city we live in today.
The Viking city of Dublin was so extensively excavated in the 1970’s that we now know more of Viking Dublin than of any other Viking town outside of Scandinavia. Dr.Pat Wallace of the National Museum of Ireland led the excavations and in his book‘Viking Dublin: The Wood Quay Excavations (published 2015 by the Irish Academic Press, €70) he reveals the enormous scale of wealth and material possessions the Vikings possessed and of their trading skills stretching as far as the Middle East. Slavery and vassalage were the central cornerstones of the Viking economy. For example recent DNA research reveals a huge proportion of Iceland’s original ‘colonists’ were Irish females, originally taken there as slaves and concubines. The Vikings altered us in other ways too. Scientific research at Queen’s University in Belfast revealed a mysterious crisis in early medieval times that sent Ireland’s population into a terminal decline and that it may have been offset by the influx of Viking settlers which remains firmly in the genes of Irish people today.
Again in 2020, archaeologists digging at Ship Street discovered the importance of that massive Viking Dublin harbour where they could dock up to 200 ships. From this base they crossed the Irish Sea to invade fledgling Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and threatened to crush the emerging nation of England. There are the remains of major battle grounds on the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire and they did eventually conquered York. Had they been a more successful they might have changed the historic relationships between these two island.
Time to bury the hatchet and celebrate!
After all these years it’s safe to bury the hatchet, celebrate and enjoy our Viking past.
Pop into the Knights Bar at Clontarf Castle where you’ll find a carved relief depicting of the Battle of Clontarf. Checkout online at www.clontarfcastle.ie And while in Clontarf there is the ‘Restaurant Ten Fourteen’ at Ten Fourteen, 324 Clontarf Road, Clontarf, Dublin 3. Tel: 01-805 4877
At 5 Prospect Road in Glasnevin, there’s Hedigan’s ‘The Brian Boru’ Pub. Long before the pub it was believed to be where King Brian Boru and his army camped before the Battle of Clontarf started on Good Friday in 1014. A pub has been here for over 200 years. The present building dates from the 1850s and has been in the ownership of the Hedigan family since 1904. www.thebrianboru.com/
Make your way out to Howth (itself a Viking name, höfthi meaning ‘head’ or peninsula) to the King Sitric Seafood Bar, Restaurant & Accommodation at the foot of the East Pier – 5 EastPier. Over looking the harbour Ireland’s Eye and Balccadden Bay This restaurant, named after Viking King Sitric Silkbeard, has thrived here of over 50 years. Visit www.kingsitric.ie
Other Viking place names in Dublin include Ireland’s Eye Island off Howth, a place of Viking refuge around 902, is a mistaken translation of Inis Erean -‘the island of Eria’, a female name the Vikings confused with Éireann; Dalkey, dalk-ey ‘thorn island’; Leixlip Lax-hleypa or ‘salmon leap’; and Lambay Island, lamba-ey ‘lamb island’.
For much more on Dublin Vikings and the medieval history of the city visit Dublinia. open daily, Monday to Sunday, 10.00am – 5.00pm (last entry 4.00pm) www.dublinia.ie/