History, Medieval, Travel

The Battle of Clontarf Heritage Trail

A couple of weeks ago I set out on a coastal run little suspecting that it would be paved with the storied bones of proud chieftains and rapacious Vikings. In fact, the curve of the coast from Clontaf to Howth was marked all along the way with signs that told of the Battle of Clontarf, one of the bloodiest and most significant battles in Irish History. What was it all about?

The approach to Clontarf from Dublin

The Viking Age in Ireland

The very first entry in the Annals of Ulster, in 841, is “Pagans still on Lough Neagh”. It’s quite a telling sentence, suggesting that the strangers had arrived fairly recently and were entirely welcome to leave.

“Visitors from Over the Sea” by Nicholas Roerich (1910)

The Vikings (for they were the Pagans in question) had no intention of going away any time soon. They had been successfully raiding the British Isles since at least 793, when they popped into the priory at Lindisfarne, an island off England’s eastern coast. The Archbishop Alcuin of York wrote a chilling account of that particular visit:

“Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments.”

As long as there were treasure-filled undefended monasteries to loot, the Vikings didn’t see any reason to stop doing their thing.

Eighth century gilded disc crafted in Ireland or Scotland and excavated from the tomb of a high-status Viking woman in Norway

In Ireland, the Vikings (mostly Norwegian as distinct from the Danes who settled England) founded fortresses and trade centers that would later become cities. They first arrived in the Dublin area about 795, raiding a monastery on Lambay Island. By 841, they’d established a settlement there. The Irish called it Fine Gall (foreign people) and/or Dubh linn (black pool). Both names stuck; Fingal is now a county and Dublin is the capital of the Republic of Ireland. Over the next three centuries it became a major trading post, and the biggest ‘export commodity’ was slaves.

Dublin seen from Howth. It’s true, the water is a bit dark.

The Irish frequently fought with the Vikings but they also fought among themselves. There was one nominal ‘High King’ but in fact there were about 150 local kingdoms and a dozen over-kingdoms, all fighting for dominance. According to John Hawyood (author of Northmen: The Viking Saga AD 793-1241) this fractured political landscape made Ireland less vulnerable to a large-scale Viking takeover than either England or France. At the same time, the Vikings gradually assimilated into Gaelic society and became Norse-Gaels.

Brian Boru

In 997, the High King of Ireland Máel Sechnaill Mór and his old enemy Brian Boru, King of Munster met and decided to make a truce and split up the island between them: Mael would get the northern half of Ireland and retain high kingship, Brian would get the southern half. The people of Leinster (an area just outside of Dublin) objected to this and made an alliance with Dublin to revolt. In the Battle of Glenmama in 999, Mael Mor and Brian Boru crushed the Leinster revolt so decisively that they had a clear path to Dublin. In 1000, Brian Boru plundered the city, burned the Norse fortress and expelled the King, Silkbeard (Sigtrygg II Silkbeard Olafsson). Silkbeard looked around for friends but found none and finally went to submit to Brian Boru, who offered Silkbeard his first daughter in marriage, while Brian took Silkbeard’s mother Gormflaith as his second wife.

Posthumous coin minted in 1050 to commemorate Silkbeard

In the 1010s, Brian Boru and Silkbeard had a falling out. In the first place, BB divorced Silkbeard’s mother, who then (according to Njál’s saga) nagged her son to kill him. Meanwhile, Leinster was gearing up for another revolt. Silkbeard joined Leinster’s cause and made alliances with the Viking leaders in Orkney and the Isle of Man. In Holy Week 1014, Silkbeard’s Viking allies sailed into Dublin. They were met by Brian Boru, High King Máel Sechnaill, several other kings and thousands of troops.

Battle of Clontarf (Vikings in Red) By 赤奋若 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Hugh Frazer Battle of Clontarf (1826). Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

What ensued was the Battle of Clontarf, in which most of the commanders, along with thousands of unnamed soldiers, died. According to Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib (“The War of the Irish with the Foreigners”), a twelfth-century account of the battle, Brian Boru was killed in his tent whilst praying. Silkbeard was not involved in the battle as he stayed in Dublin in case the fighting should turn in that direction. He survived for many years but his power over Dublin weakened until in 1032 he was forced to abdicate and go into exile.

The traditional view is that Viking power in Ireland was finally broken at the Battle of Clontarf. However, some modern historians contend that it was merely one event in a centuries-old civil war and that Vikings fought on both sides. Perhaps, then, the main reason for the decline of Viking influence after this date was that they had so successfully fused with Irish Christian culture.

The Crozier of Clonmacnoise shows a beautiful fusion of Viking and Celtic styles

The Trail

These days, Clontarf seems pretty peaceful and if the signs weren’t there it would be hard to imagine a huge battle in the vicinity. Here is a selection of local scenery along the way to Howth.

The promenade at Clontarf, looking towards Poolbeg
A Moai statue donated to Dublin by the Government of Chile

View looking across Dublin Bay from Howth towards Dalkey and Dalkey Island
Racial memories
Sunset from Sutton Strand