The Battle of Clontarf raged near Dublin on April 23rd in the year 1014. Nearly 10 000 casualties littered the battlefield when the day came to an end. The battle is mentioned in several contemporary sources where it is described as remarkably loud and bloody.
Vikings began raiding Ireland in the late 700s, establishing several settlements during the decades to come. They founded Dublin in 838, which eventually grew into the Kingdom of Dublin – a bustling center of commerce that controlled the Irish Sea. As time passed, many of the Vikings became part of the Gaelic society and political scene.
The powers wanting to control Ireland were many, with a lot of complex politics and bloody battles as a result. Vikings and Irish fought on both sides, making it a civil war on Ireland. One decisive moment was the Battle of Clontarf where Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, faced the Norse-Irish alliance led by Sigtrygg Silkbeard, King of Dublin, and Máel Mórda mac Murchada, King of Leinster.
The battle begun at sunset with the forces marching towards one and other. Brian Boru’s side was led by his brother, his son and his 15-year old grandson. Brian himself was in his 70s and chose to stay behind in prayer. The Vikings and Leinster forces were led by chieftains, such as Brodir, and a Viking called Plait – the latter described as “the bravest of all foreigners”. Sigtrygg Silkbeard did as his foe, Brian Boru, and stayed behind. He watched the battle from the walls of Dublin with his wife (who also happened to be Brian Boru’s daughter!).
The battle kicked off with the Viking warrior Plait taunting Domnall mac Eimín – a Scottish ally of Brian Boru. Both men eventually marched out to the middle of the field and fought to death. Contemporary sources describe the scene as:
“with the sword of each through the heart of the other, and the hair of each in the clenched hand of the other”.
This heroic duel must have gotten the adrenaline pumping on both sides since the battle was extremely bloody, even by medieval standards. It lasted till sunset with thousands of casualties on both sides. High King Brian Boru’s son and nephew were both slain in the carnage, as was King Máel Mórda, and Sigrtrygg’s brother and nephew.
Eventually the Irish gained the upper hand, with the Dublin-Leinster forces retreating to their ships. The incoming tide had, however, carried many of the ships out of reach which resulted in a death trap. Brian Boru’s 15 year old grandson was taken by the tide as well, as he pursued the enemy into the sea and drowned.
The Viking chieftain Brodir was not done. He located High King Brian Boru and killed him in his tent. Karma bites both ways though, since Brian’s brother took immediate revenge and ended Brodir’s life in a quite gruesome way. Njal’s saga describes it as:
“He cut open his belly, and led him round and round the trunk of a tree, and so would all his entrails out of him, and he did not die before they were all drawn out of him”.
Sigtrygg remained the King of Dublin for 22 more years, even though Dublin’s power was weakened thanks to the outcome of this battle.
(Painting: Battle of Clontarf by Hugh Frazer)