Bloody Danes? Bloody Hell!

We came together in a church to celebrate something that happened a thousand years ago.
I’ll give you a few clues. The event took place in Clontarf.
Both events, the original one in 1014 and the commemoration last week.
Another clue. We were honoured with the presence of the Norwegian ambassador. Not just that, we had the music of Grieg played by a brass ensemble from the Norwegian Navy Band.
Alright, you’ve probably guessed. This was an event to commemorate the Battle of Clontarf which took place just north of Dublin on Good Friday, April 23rd, in 1014.
The commemoration took place in the parish church and I have to say I enjoyed the various elements that went to make the whole performance. It was mainly music, laced with a bit of history, illustrated with maps and with a couple of speeches thrown in.
So what did I enjoy most? Here’s something that really brought me back to my youthful years in the church. The chanting. A group of monks dressed in black and white robes, moving up the centre aisle chanting the Church’s music in traditional monastic style. This I loved. There is nothing in my view to compare with the unaccompanied Plain Chant that’s been passed down for hundreds of years.
I enjoyed too the classical guitar of John Feehily and his rendering of Brian Boru’s march.
Brian Boru? Okay, I suppose I’d better fill you in on what lies behind all the fuss we’ve been making over the past couple of weeks.
Here in Ireland we were all brought up on the story of Brian Boru, the Christian king who drove the Viking invaders into the sea. I clearly remember a picture on the classroom wall showing King Brian praying in his tent while his warriors chased the heathens in their horned helmets into the waves, thus saving this nation for Christianity and for the Irish people.
This was a simple story and generations of Irish have been brought up on that story. Simple, but simplistic. The truth is far more complex.
Brian started his career by subduing some neighbouring chieftains in the south of the country and built on this success by spreading his influence north and east. He achieved the extraordinary feat of wresting the High Kingship from the O’Neills, the northern dynasty which had held sway for hundreds of years.
Brian in his new position as Ard Rí expected all the lesser leaders to pay tribute to him. And that’s where the trouble began. The Leinster King and the Norse King of Dublin refused to play ball. Which irked Brian no end.
Things were somewhat complicated by the fact that Brian’s ex-wife was mother of Sitric Silkenbeard the ruler of Dublin. And this lady was egging on Brian’s enemies to take no nonsense from her former husband.
Brian’s army marched on Dublin and skirmishing between the sides persisted over a period of months. The Viking Sitric sent for help to his allies in Orkney and Man. He was also promised the support of his near neighbour and brother-in-law the King of Leinster.
It would seem to me that it was the arrival of the Viking reinforcements, whose ships put in at Clontarf, that was the catalyst for the final battle.
Be that as it may, fighting began at dawn on Good Friday and the bloody slaughter lasted all day. Things went so badly wrong for the Dubliners and their allies that by day’s end they were desperate for any possible avenue of escape. Those who had arrived by sea were slaughtered in their hundreds as they tried to reach boats now cut off by the high tide. Those seeking the safety of the city walls were intercepted at a bridge over the Tolka River. That’s where Broder, leader of the Orkney Vikings was captured and put to the sword.
King Brian, in the moment of victory was himself killed, by Broder it seems, and was henceforth raised to the status of Christian martyr to be held up as an example for future generations of Irish nationalists.
As I said earlier there’s nothing simple or straightforward about how we can view this bloody affair. Far from being a struggle between Irish and Viking, the fact remains there were Irish and Vikings fighting on both sides.
Those who would say the battle of Clontarf was nothing more than a struggle for power among different factions on this island may not be so far wrong after all.
But that needn’t prevent us celebrating the thousand year old commemoration of events and enjoying the chanting of the monks, the music of the Norwegians or the speeches of the dignitaries.

2 thoughts on “Bloody Danes? Bloody Hell!

  1. It was only in recent years, in a book called “A Book Around the Irish Sea” by historian David Brett, that I learned that the version of the Battle of Clontarf that we learned in school was basically propaganda in support of the O’Briens. Not that the account of the battle itself was false, but its significance and context – it was shoehorned into a narrative of Gael versus Dane, Christian versus heathen. The implication was that the Danes were driven from Ireland, never to return, whereas the reality was a continuation of the status quo ante; the Danes continued to rule Dublin and the shifting alliances of Irish and Danish rulers continued to shift.

    There are parallels to the story of the defeat of the Moors at Poitiers by Charles Martel. For centuries it was presented as a great Christian victory, the turning point of the Muslim advance into western Europe; nowadays it is downplayed as just one of numerous raids across the Pyrenees by the Moorish rulers of Spain.

  2. - and the Vikings didn’t even wear horned helmets – that really disappointed me when I found out!

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