“I have been where warriors wrestled, / High in Erin sang the sword, / Boss to boss met many bucklers. / Steel rung sharp on rattling helm; / I can tell of all their struggle; / Sigurd fell in flight of spears; / Brian fell, but kept his kingdom /Ere he lost one drop of blood.“ (Hostfinn’s song about the Battle of Clontarf from Njál’s Saga)
Around the year 1000, the Norse had more or less become an integral part of the tribes inhabiting Irelands and the descendants of the Vik, who had started out as raiders in the early 9th century had long since become traders, farmers and founders of cities, such as Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, and warred with the other petty kings for supremacy on the island, as well as making an occasional grab for a crown in England. When Brian Bóruma Mac Cennétig was crowned High King of the Irish in 1002 and tried to consolidate his rule, the Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin, Sigtrygg Silkbeard found himself joining the rebellion of his uncle Máel Mórda mac Murchada, the King of Leinster. The alliance was already defeated once by Sigtrygg’s father-in-law Brian Boru in 999 at Glenmama, and now, 15 years later, they faced each other again at Clontarf, Brian with his army of 7.000 from Munster, Connaught and his shifty allies from Meath and Máel Mórda, his Leinstermen, Sigtrygg, his Norse-Gaels from Dublin, along with Norse allies from the Orkneys and the Isle of Man, about 7.000 men as well.
On a Good Friday, the two armies met near the beach at Clontarf and what we actually know about the battle is full of legendary accounts, but few hard facts. The Norse contingent seemed to have tried to sail their ships around Brian Borù’s host to fall into his flank, the manoeuver was discovered, ritual insults and single combat might have preceded the actual clash of the two hosts, like a battle of the Heroic Age of the old Celts, magic banners that granted their bearers victory but a sudden death as well, were held aloft and then the slaughter began. The Norse and the Dubliners in their mail coats seem to have been better equipped then the Gaels, the fighting was remembered as especially loud an bloody and finally Norse-Gaels and their allies broke and were pushed back to the ships and many drowned in the rising tide. The men from Munster had won the day. King Brian Boru was killed in his tent shortly after the battle ended by the Manxman Brodir, though, Máel Mórda along with Brian’s son Murchad and his grandson Tordhelbach had been killed in battle as well.
According to the Irish sources, the Leinster-Norse alliance had lost 6.000 of theirs at Clontarf while Brian’s coalition’s losses amounted to 1.600, probably even 4.000 men. The power of Brian’s clan was as effectively broken as was that of the Norse-Gaels, but Sigtrygg Silkbeard continued to rule Dublin until 1036 and Brian’s predecessor as High King, Máel Sechnaill, still ruler of Munster, assumed the high kingship again with the help of the mighty Ua Néill clan from Ulster and held that office, this time for good, until his death in 1022 while the tribal wars raged on until the Normans came in 1169.
Depicted below is a Gjermundbu helmet, a typical headgear for a well-off Norse warrior or successful mercenary around the time of the Battle of Clontarf (picture found on http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f0/Hjelm_av_jern_fra_vikingtid_fra_Gjermundbu.jpg)
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