Battle of Clontarf

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Battle of Clontarf
Date 23 April 1014
Location Clontarf, Dublin
Result Victory and death of Brian
Viking power in Ireland broken
Irish of Munster Kingdom of Dublin
Vikings of Orkney and Man
Commanders and leaders
Brian Boru 
Murchad mac Briain 
Sigtrygg Silkbeard
Máel Mórda 
~7,000 men ~6,600 men
Casualties and losses
>4,000 dead ~6,000 dead

The Battle of Clontarf (Irish: Cath Chluain Tarbh) was a battle that took place on 23 April 1014 between the forces of Brian Boru, high king of Ireland, and an alliance of the forces of Sigtrygg Silkbeard, king of Dublin, Máel Mórda mac Murchada, the king of Leinster, and a Viking contingent led by Sigurd, Earl of Orkney, and Brodir of the Isle of Man. It lasted from sunrise to sunset, and ended in a rout of the Viking and Leinster forces. Brian was killed in the course of the battle, as were his son, Murchad, and his grandson, Toirdelbach. After the battle, the Vikings of Dublin were reduced to a secondary power. Brian's family was temporarily eclipsed, and there was no undisputed high king of Ireland until the late twelfth century.


Map of the larger Irish kingdoms in 1014

Vikings first established themselves in Dublin in 838, when they built a fortified area, or longphort, there.[1] During the tenth century Viking Dublin developed into the Kingdom of Dublin—a thriving town and a large area of the surrounding countryside, whose rulers controlled extensive territories in the Irish Sea and, at one time, York.[2] Dublin was closely involved in the affairs of the Kingdom of the Isles, which included the Isle of Man and the Hebrides, and when the Dublin king Amlaíb Cuarán was defeated by Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill at the Battle of Tara in 980, he was supported by the men of the Isles.[3] Amlaíb's son, Sigtrygg Silkbeard, who was king of Dublin from 990, allied himself with his uncle Máel Mórda mac Murchada, king of Leinster. They met Máel Sechnaill and Brian Boru at the Battle of Glenmama in 999, where they were defeated.[4]

From the time of the seventh-century king Domnall mac Áedo, the kingship of Tara, which was strongly associated with the high kingship of Ireland, had been held by members of the Uí Néill dynasty, which controlled the northern half of Ireland.[5] In the tenth century, the Dál gCais, until then a small kingdom in what is now County Clare, began to expand. By the time of his death in 951, Cennétig mac Lorcáin had become king of Thomond. His son, Mathgamain mac Cennétig, was king of Munster when he died in 976.[6] Mathgamain's brother, Brian Boru, quickly asserted his claim to the kingship of Munster, then invaded Leinster and gained its submission.[7] In 998 he attacked the Uí Néill stronghold of Meath. Máel Sechnaill responded by attacking Munster in 999, and over the following years the two kings struggled for supremacy in Ireland. In 997, Brian and Máel Sechnaill met in Clonfert and reached an agreement where they recognised each other's reign over their respective halves of the country—Máel Sechnaill in the north and Brian in the south. Brian received the hostages of Leinster and Dublin from Máel Seachnaill, and surrendered the hostages of Connacht to him.[7] The peace was short-lived. After they had jointly defeated the Vikings at Glenmama, Brian resumed his attacks on Máel Seachnaill.[8] He marched on Tara in 1000 with the combined armies of Munster, Osraige, Leinster and Dublin, but withdrew without giving battle.[9] In 1002 he marched with the same army to Athlone, and took the hostages of Connacht and Meath. He was now undisputed high king of Ireland.[10]

Revolt of Dublin and Leinster[edit]

Brian consolidated his hold on Ireland by obtaining the submission of the northern kingdoms of Cenél nEógain, Cenél Conaill and Ulaid, completing the task by going to Cenél Conaill with "a great land and sea" in 1011, and accepting the surrender of the king.[11] It was not long, however, before fighting was renewed. Flaithbertach Ua Néill, king of the Cenél nEógain, attacked the two neighbouring kingdoms in 1012. Máel Seachnaill, on behalf of the high king, moved against him, but Flaithbertach in turn raided into Meath and defeated Máel Seachnaill.[12] Sigtrygg and Máel Mórda took advantage, and themselves raided Meath. Máel Seachnaill sent his army down to raid Dublin and Leinster, but he was defeated and his son was killed. Sigtrygg then sent a fleet down around the coast to attack the Munster town of Cork, but that was defeated, and Sygtrygg's nephew was killed.[13] A full-scale conflict was inevitable. Brian brought his army to Leinster in 1013, and camped outside dublin from September until the end of the year.[14] Sigtrygg went overseas in search of support and enlisted the help of Sigurd Hlodvirsson, the Earl of Orkney and Brodir, a warrior of the Isle of Man. According to the Icelandic Njáls saga, Sigtrygg promised both men the kingdom of Ireland.[14] The Viking fleets of Orkney and Man sailed into Dublin in Holy Week 1014.[14] Brian mustered the army of Munster, which was joined by two Connacht kings, Mael Ruanaidh Ua hEidhin, king of Uí Fiachrach Aidhne, and Tadhg Ua Cellaigh, king of Uí Maine, and marched on Dublin. [15]


Battle of Clontarf, oil on canvas painting by Hugh Frazer, 1826, Isaacs Art Center

No order of battle is given in the contemporary sources; the only leaders named are those who died in the battle. The closest contemporary accounts are the Annals of Inisfallen and the Annals of Ulster. Among the fallen on Brian's side, they name the high king himself, his son Murchad and his grandson Toirdelbach, as well as his nephew Conaing, Domnall mac Diarmata of Corcu Baiscind (County Clare), Mac Bethad mac Muiredaig of Ciarraige Luachra (County Kerry), Mael Ruanaidh Ua hEidhin of Uí Fiachrach Aidhne, and Tadhg Ua Cellaigh of Uí Maine (both in south Connacht).[16] On the opposing side are named Máel Morda, Dubgall mac Amlaíb, brother of Sigtrygg of Dublin, Sigurd Hlodvirsson of Orkney, Gilla Ciaráin mac Glún Iairn, probably a nephew of Sigtrygg, and Brodir, commander of the Viking fleet.[17] None of Máel Sechnaill's people were among the slain, but the Annals of Ulster say that that Máel Sechnaill and Brian rode together to Dublin, and the Annals of the Four Masters go so far as to say that it was Máel Sechnaill that won the day, and completed the rout after the death of Brian.[18] Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib, on the other hand, says that the men of Meath came to the muster with Brian, but "were not faithful to him".[19]

According to the Cogad, after his arrival at Dublin, Brian sent his forces north across the river to plunder the area known as Fine Gall, and they torched the country as far as Howth. Brian, now in his 70s, did not go with them but remained behind to pray. The Dublin forces set out by land, and were joined in Clontarf at high tide by the Viking fleet that was in Dublin Bay.[20]

The Viking army formed up into five divisions on the field, while Sigtrygg and 1,000 of his men remained in town. Sigtrygg's son commanded the extreme left of the line with 1,000 of the men from Dublin who decided to fight in the open. Máel Mórda added another 3,000 men from Leinster in two divisions. Although numerous, they too were poorly armed in comparison to the Vikings on either side. Sigurd's Orkney Vikings manned the centre with 1,000 men, and Brodir's Vikings added another 1,000 or more on the right, on the beaches.

Brian's forces were arranged in a similar fashion. On the right (the Viking left) were 1,000 foreign mercenaries and Manx Vikings. Next to them, 1,500 clansmen of Connacht were gathered under their kings, while more than 2,000 Munster warriors under Brian's son Murchad continued the front, flanked by 1,400 Dal Caissans on the extreme left led by Murchad's 15-year-old son, Tordhelbach, and Brian's brother, Cuduiligh. Off to the right and several hundred yards to the rear stood Máel Sechnaill's 1,000 men who simply watched.

The battle opened with several personal taunts between men in either line, often ending with the two men marching out into the middle of the field to enter personal battle, while the forces on either side cheered. While this went on the two groups slowly edged towards each other. They engaged early in the morning.

At first the battle went the Vikings' way, with their heavier weapons prevailing over their opponents as everyone had expected. This advantage also served Brian, whose Viking mercenaries on his right slowly pushed back the forces facing them. On the left, Brodir himself led the charge and gained ground, until he met the warrior Wolf the Quarrelsome, brother of King Brian. Although Wolf was unable to break Brodir's armour, he knocked him to the ground and Brodir fled to hide. This left the now leaderless Viking force facing Murchad's forces, who considered themselves the "king's own" (containing many of Brian's more distant relatives) and by the afternoon Brodir's forces were fleeing to their ships.

In the centre things were going more the Vikings' way. Both Sigurd's and Máel Mórda's forces were hammering into the Munster forces. However Sigurd, according to legend, carried a "magical" standard into battle which drew the Irish warriors to it, eventually forcing their way in and killing the bearer. Although the standard was supposed to guarantee a victory for the bearer's forces, it also guaranteed the bearer's death. No one would pick it up due to its reputation, so Sigurd did and was quickly killed.

By the end of the day, after several mutual pauses for rest, the Vikings found themselves with both flanks failing, Sigurd dead, and everyone exhausted. The beaches in front of the ships were already lost, and many men took to trying to swim to the ships further offshore, drowning in the process. The battle was now clearly going Brian's way, and the Dublin Vikings decided to flee to the town. At this point Máel Sechnaill decided to re-enter the battle, and cut them off from the bridge. The result was a rout, with every "invading" Viking leader being killed in the battle.

Meanwhile Brodir, hiding in the woods near Dublin, noticed Brian praying in his tent. Gathering several followers they ran into the tent and killed him and his retainers. Then they retreated, with Brodir yelling, Now let man tell man that Brodir felled Brian. According to Viking accounts, he was eventually tracked, captured and gruesomely killed by Wolf the Quarrelsome with whom he had clashed earlier on the battlefield.

Of the 6,500 to 7,000 Vikings and allied forces, an estimated 6,000,[citation needed] including almost all the leaders, were killed. Irish losses were at least 4,000[citation needed], including their king and most of his sons. There was no longer any clear line of succession.


With the Irish now leaderless, and the power of the Dublin Vikings as a political force broken, Ireland soon returned to a series of bloody factional fighting. However things had changed as a result of the battle, with Viking and Gaelic culture no longer contesting power. After a number of years this led to a lasting peace.

Sigtrygg, who had watched the battle with Gormflaith from Dublin, on the south bank of the River Liffey, and with the Irish army melting away the next day, ended up as the only "winner" of the contest, continuing his rule in Dublin until his death in 1042. The Kingdom of Meath also benefitted from the fact that its warriors suffered few casualties, and managed to come from the battlefield in a much stronger position, with most of its neighbours, including the Dublin Vikings, all incapable of launching further advances. However the series of wars had resulted in a fragmented political landscape, which could not unite under the old High King.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Forte, Angelo; Richard Oram and Frederik Pedersen (2005). Viking Empires. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 81. ISBN 0521829925. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  2. ^ Abrams, Lesley (1998). "The Conversion of the Scandinavians of Dublin". In Harper-Bill, Christopher. Anglo-Norman Studies XX: Proceedings of the Battle Conference in Dublin, 1997. Woodenbridge: Boydell. pp. 2–3. ISBN 0851155731. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  3. ^ Downham, Clare (March/April 2014). "Clontarf in the wider world". History Ireland 22 (2): 23. 
  4. ^ Mac Shamhráin, Ailbhe (2001). "The battle of Glenn Máma, Dublin and the high-kingship of Ireland". In Duffy, Seán. Medieval Dublin II. Dublin: Four Courts Press. pp. 53–64. ISBN 1851826076. 
  5. ^ Koch, John T. (2001). "Domnall mac Aedo maic Anmirech". In Koch, John T. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia 2. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. p. 605. ISBN 1851094407. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  6. ^ Ó Faoláin, Simon (2001). "Dál gCais". In Koch, John T. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia 2. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. pp. 554–5. ISBN 1851094407. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Lydon, James (1998). The Making of Ireland: From Ancient Times to the Present. London: Routledge. p. 32. ISBN 0415013488. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  8. ^ Duffy, Seán (2013). Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan. pp. 123–4. ISBN 9780717157785. 
  9. ^ Duffy (2013), pp. 129-133
  10. ^ Duffy (2013), pp. 134–5.
  11. ^ McGettigan, Darren (2013). The Battle of Clontarf: Good Friday 1014. Dublin: Four Courts Press. pp. 61–3. ISBN 9781846823848. 
  12. ^ McGettigan (2013), p. 87
  13. ^ McGettigan (2013), p. 88
  14. ^ a b c McGettigan (2013), p. 89
  15. ^ McGettigan (2013), p. 91
  16. ^ Duffy (2013), pp. 179–80
  17. ^ Duffy (2013), pp. 175, 181–4
  18. ^ Duffy (2013), pp. 185, 191
  19. ^ Duffy (2013), p. 201
  20. ^ Duffy, Seán (March/April 2014). "What happened at the Battle of Clontarf?". History Ireland 22 (2): 30.