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  • James Houser

April 23, 1014 - High King Brian Boru of Ireland & the Battle of Clontarf

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

April 23, 1014. After 200 years of raids and pillaging at the hands of the Vikings, the Irish are ready to drive the invaders from their island. On the field of Clontarf, north of Dublin, the High King Brian Boruma leads clans from across the Emerald Isle to their final showdown with the invading Norse hordes. There will be no winners today.

The early history of Ireland is shrouded in mystery. Medieval chronicles contain lists of High Kings dating back almost a millennium – lists that are obviously false. The Romans knew the island as “Hibernia,” and considered it a hopeless tract of wilderness not really worth conquering.

Strangely, Ireland really flowered in the “Dark Ages” just after the collapse of the Roman Empire. In around the 400s AD, Saint Patrick’s introduction of Christianity to the island sparked an outburst of literary and lyric culture. Early Christian Ireland, from about 400 to 800 AD, became the cultural and religious powerhouse of the “Dark Ages.” Irish missionaries converted most of the Anglo-Saxon in England and the north German kings to Christianity, and the island became a center for scholarship and study. Throughout the Dark Ages, the Irish were one of the main tenders of the tiny flame of Western civilization.

The centers of Irish medieval culture were its monastic sites. The greatest center was Armagh, which was almost a city in its own right, along with other centers like Kells and Cashel. Ireland still had no major cities, and these monasteries soon grew beyond quiet religious houses into large economic and cultural complexes. With no real trade or commerce in Ireland, the monastery became the center of cultural and political life for nobles, churchmen and commoners alike.

Ireland was not a unified country in this period. It was split into almost 150 different “petty kingdoms,” each of which had its own small King. The most powerful kings by far were the strong Ui Neill (O’Neill) dynasty, which ruled the northern and eastern parts of Ireland around modern Dublin and Donegal. The Ui Neill had held the title of “High King of Ireland” since the 400s AD, a mainly ceremonial title that acknowledged them as first among equals – but only just. The Ui Neill fought the tides of change, continuing pagan practices until the 550s. Diarmait mac Cerbaill of the Ui Neill was the first Christian High King of Ireland.

The chief rivals of the Ui Neill were the Kings of Munster in the southwest – near modern Cork and Limerick. This dynasty, the Ui Briuin (O’Brien) resisted the Ui Neill dominance of Ireland.

Then the Vikings arrived.

The Vikings, of course, were seaborne raiders from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, warriors for whom raiding was a way of life. They would set out for the summer on their longboats, raid their targets before any military force could face them, and disappear onto the ocean. They found Christian monasteries and churches to be exceptionally vulnerable to this tactic since they were rich and typically undefended.

Most of Europe experienced Viking invasion in three stages. In the first stage, Viking raiders and bandits would attack along the coast in small numbers, carrying off loot and treasure and returning to Scandinavia. In the second stage, the Vikings would establish a base somewhere on the coast – an island or an easily defended point – from which they could raid even during the winter. In the third and final stage, the Vikings would attempt outright conquest.

Ireland went through all these stages. The first stage of Viking attacks – raid, steal, and run – started around 795 AD and ended the golden age of early Medieval Ireland. The monasteries and towns that had been the centers of Irish culture were targeted. These raids were sporadic, though, and rarely did lasting damage; they were only pinpricks along the coast.

The second stage came soon after. The Vikings began to establish fortified camps along the Irish coast known as “longports.” Instead of returning to Norway or Denmark for the winter, the Vikings would shelter there so they could start, plan, and end their raids with more time to spare. This increased the danger for the Irish. The Vikings could build larger raiding parties – in 837 a force of 1500 sacked Armagh – and they would sail upriver to attack inland cities as well. Some of these Viking “longports” became important centers of commerce. The Viking settlement of Dyflin on the east coast soon became known to the Irish as Duiblinn (“Black Pool”) – Dublin.

Then the third stage of Viking attacks began. In 857, a Viking leader named Ivar the Boneless arrived in Ireland. He was the son of the great lord Ragnar Lodbrok, one of the chief figures of Norse historical myth. Ivar and his brother Olaf waged wars of conquest in Ireland, founding a Kingdom of Dublin centered on their port and building multiple fortresses across the island, including the centers of Corcaigh (Cork) and Luimneach (Limerick). By now, though, the Irish kings were making alliances with rival Viking leaders. The Vikings began fighting each other as much as they fought the natives, and soon became another player in the complicated Irish game of thrones.

Throughout the 900s, the Ui Neill High Kings of Ireland clashed repeatedly with the Kingdom of Dublin, which was led by the Ui Imair (O’Ivar) – the descendants of Ivar the Boneless. At one time the most fearsome dynasty of the British Isles, the Ui Imair failed to make any real headway into conquering Ireland. Their family members got distracted by wars in England and Scotland against the Anglo-Saxons, and they failed to keep a lid on things back in Ireland, where the struggle with the old Ui Neill was reaching the boiling point.

In 980, Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill (anglicized as Malachy MacMulrooney Domnhall, so yeah it doesn’t translate well) became the High King of Ireland. Later that same year, he defeated Olaf, the Viking ruler of Dublin, at the Battle of Tara. After he had conquered the city, Mael Sechnaill freed the Viking thralls and finally banned chattel slavery – thrallage – across the island. It seemed like the Irish had finally won out. The Kings of Dublin agreed to submit to the High King of Ireland.

It was not to last. At the final moment of triumph for the Ui Neill, their old rivals in Munster showed up. The rule of Munster had come under the Ui Briuin and their current King Brian Boruma. Brian was a great warrior, and had the dream of truly unifying Ireland against the Viking threat. He had defeated the Norsemen of Cork and Limerick and forced them to submit to his rule, and had adopted Viking tactics and practices in order to strengthen his kingdom and improve his fighting ability. He was a great strategist as well, using his river fleets and fast-moving Irish raiders to strike simultaneous blows on multiple targets.

King Mael Sechnaill soon realized that he would not rule Ireland long if Brian was allowed to grow in power. The two engaged in almost twenty years of war starting in 982 – diverting attention from the growing Viking threat, which had never really gone away. In 1002, however, Brian had enough. He challenged Mael to a battle on the holy site of Tara. The two kings raced to raise enough armies and rally enough allies to have the advantage, but Brian had an ace up his sleeve. He had been giving enormous sums of money to the key monastic centers such as Armagh and Kells. These monasteries, in turn, used their immense influence in Irish politics to sway the local nobles and lords in Brian’s favor. When Mael showed up to Tara, he was grossly outmatched; many of the men who were supposed to support him had rallied to Brian’s banner. With no other option, Mael submitted to his foe, and granted him the crown of High King of Ireland.

High King Brian Boruma sought to establish a unified Kingdom of Ireland in the same way that England and France had their own powerful kings. Ireland had been divided for a very long time, but Brian was the first man with the military and political power to make it happen, thanks to his military victories and the support of the church. He was aging, though – he was already nearing his 70s – and he feared he would not have time to make that happen.

In 1014, a number of Irish lords in the east rebelled, including the subdued Viking King of Dublin Sigtrygg. Sigtrygg travelled to Viking lands around the isles of Scotland and England, and brought back a substantial force of Norsemen. He believed that Brian’s rulership of Ireland was fading along with his health, and one good shove could finally turn Ireland into a Viking Kingdom – under his rule, of course. Multiple Irish nobles on the wrong end of Brian’s unification efforts joined up as well. Soon this new Viking-Rebel army was in Dublin, preparing for the invasion.

Brian Boruma was 73 years old. He had been fighting the Vikings his entire life, and had a small dream that Ireland could come from its struggles to be reborn as a unified state. Now the Vikings were making their last bid for rule over Ireland, and Brian Boruma rallied the tribes and clans for one great battle.

On April 23, 1014, the greatest battle of Irish medieval history came to pass on the field of Clontarf. The Viking forces marched out, the foreign invaders under Sigurd of the Isles in the first rank. The Dubliners and Leinstermen followed behind them. Sigtrygg himself stayed back in Dublin with his wife Slaine – Brian’s daughter – in case the battle went wrong. The Vikings were well-armed with mail and heavy swords.

Brian’s son Murchad led the first Irish rank, formed of men from their own Munster clan, followed by the Connacht and Ulstermen. In the third rank the Ui Neill, along with the former king Mael, stood ready to fight beside the man who had defeated them. The Irish soldiers were unarmored, mainly equipped with their light swords and throwing spears.

The battle began with a duel between the greatest Viking warrior, Plait, and a Scottish friend of Brian’s named Domnall mac Eimin. These two men killed each other in the course of the duel, and the battle proper began. The fight was long and terrible; sources say it lasted all day. When the Connacht men and Dublin men collided, the melee was so fierce that very few survived. The Irish hurled their spears into the Viking ranks; Brian’s son Murchad allegedly killed 100 of the enemy, including the chief of the mercenary Vikings, before he himself was brought down.

The Vikings soon began to lose their nerve and tried to retreat to their ships. During the course of the battle, though, the tide had come in and carried off the Viking longboats. With no hope of escape, the Vikings almost all died.

The Irish, though, had paid dearly for their victory. During the fight, while Brian prayed for victory, the Danish warrior Brodir slipped away from the battle, crept into the High King’s tent and stabbed the old man in the back. Though he was immediately killed by Brian’s guards, it was too late. The High King of Ireland was dead, and his son as well.

Even though the Irish had won a great victory at Clontarf, and the Vikings were gone forever, the dream of a unified Ireland vanished with Brian Boruma’s death. His family soon fell apart in a terrible succession crisis, and the High Kingship quickly receded into a ceremonial status yet again. The Irish had survived as a people but collapsed as a kingdom. Nobody really won the Battle of Clontarf, in the end – except the rebel Sigtrygg, who lived another thirty years. He had hidden in Dublin Castle throughout the battle, and it paid off. Turns out discretion really is the better part of valor.

When the Normans arrived in 1167 to conquer Ireland and subordinate it to England, they found a weak, divided country full of squabbling nobles who could not unify to stop them. If they had faced Brian’s dream of a unified, strong kingdom…who knows. A lot can change based on the life of one man. That’s the hinge of history.

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