On Good Friday, April 23, 1014 just north of Dublin a momentous and bloody battle was fought. At stake was the nascent unification of Ireland under its first true king, Brian Boru; and the future influence of the Vikings, who had settled and meddled in Ireland for nearly two centuries. The battle that resulted changed the course of Irish history, forever!
(This is the second of two parts. It is highly recommended to read Part One first.)
Following his stay with Jarl Sigurd in Orkney over the Yuletide celebration, Sitric Silkbeard returned to Dublin. There he informed his mother, Gormlaith, of his success in securing Sigurd’s aid in their coming showdown with Brian; and of his promise to the Jarl of her hand in marriage once they were victorious. Gormlaith was well-pleased with this arrangement, and congratulated her son on his mission. However, she was still not satisfied that her son had sufficient allies to challenge Brian Boru in battle. She told him he should voyage to the nearby Isle of Man; where the Manx Viking leaders, Brodir and his brother Ospak, had a fleet of 30 longships. There, he should seek the alliance of these two fierce Viking warlords, and offer them whatever it took to gain their aid.
BRODIR AND OSPAK
Little is known of the political situation on the Isle of Man in the early 11th century. It had been part of the Viking world since the 8th century; sometimes ruled from Dublin, other times from the Orkneys. Was it as some point in this era governed as an independent fief? We just don’t know. But at the end of 1013 the two brothers, Brodir and Ospak, were at Man with a fleet of 30 ships. Were they the rulers of Man at this time, using the island as their stronghold? Or were they merely a passing fleet of Vikings who had taken up temporary anchorage for the winter?
On this the sources are unclear.
The brothers are only mentioned in the 12th century Irish Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib and in the 13th century Icelandic Njal’s Saga, which describes them as “lying off the west of Man”. This would seem to infer that they were merely lying at anchor; the second of the two options above.The saga says they had a fleet of 30 longships and perhaps as many as 2,000 followers: “men of such hardihood that nothing can withstand them”. For the reasons elucidated below, a more likely number for their host is about 1,500 . These Manx Vikings are described as “Danmarkians” (Danes); “the chiefs of ships and outlaws and Danars of all the west of Europe, having no reverence for God or for man, for church or for sanctuary.” This sounds like a mixed band of Viking freebooters, come to serve under these two chiefs. Certainly throughout the reign of the feckless Æthelred bands of Danish Vikings had raided England continuously. With Svein Forkbeard seeming to have brought England under his sword in 1013, the “worst-of-the-worst” may have taken ship to Man to find new service and new prey under Brodir (or perhaps led there by him). 
This was a time of great ferment in the Viking world, with Danes and Jomsvikings assailing England over the last decade, and Norway long the scene of civil war between the royal house of Harald Fairhair and the powerful Jarls of Lade. From these campaigns many bands of hardened warriors likely spun off the mainstream and ventured on their own, taking advantage of opportunities such chaos affords the bold and ruthless.
Such was likely this band of Manx Vikings under Brodir and Ospak.
The origin of Brodir and his brother is equally mysterious and even more intriguing. One modern scholar working from other sources describes the brothers as Danes living on the west coast of the Isle of Man . Another, working from the Irish chronicle The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, describes them as “Broder and Amlaff “(Olaf), “son of the king of Lochlann” and “two earls of all the north of the Saxon-land (England)” . The Irish chronicle names him “Brodar”, and calls him the “son of Osli, the earl of Caer Ebroc” (York) . York (Viking Jorvik) had been added to the English kingdom in the 10th century by the descendants of Alfred the Great. However, in the chaos surrounding the Danish invasion and the last days of Æthelred the Unready, it is conceivable that a Danish warlord (Brodir), perhaps a follower of Svein Forkbeard, could have been styled however briefly as Jarl/Earl of Jorvik; and had either fallen-out with his liege and fled to Man; or was merely on an extended Viking expedition, and wintering at Man before returning to Jorvik. It’s an intriguing set of possibilities.
Interestingly, Brodir is not a proper Danish or Norse name; but instead means “brother”. The sources call him a former mass-deacon, before he renounced Christianity and reverted to paganism. Could “brother” have been not his name, but a sobriquet? An alternate theory is that it is derived from the Irish name variously written as Bruattar, Bruadar or Brodur; the root of the name “Broadrick “. Could Brodir have been a gallóglaigh; a member of the warrior-class of mixed Norse-Gaelic ancestry, which the Irish called Gall Gaeil (foreign Gaels)? It is conceivable that the brothers had even been displaced from their Irish homes during Brian’s war against the Vikings of Munster. It is not impossible that Brodir had a very personal grudge against Brian; though if so it was one his brother, Ospak, didn’t share.
Brodir himself is described as tall and strong, his black hair so long that he braided it and tucked it under his belt! It was also said that “he had a coat of mail on which no steel would bite.” Of Ospak we know even less, except that he was a pagan as well, and had at least two grown sons with him among the Manx Vikings warriors.
The moody coast of Man, where Brodir and Ospak lay at anchor in the winter of 1013
On arriving at Man, King Sitric approached the brothers and sought to enlist them to his cause. Brodir at first refused; ’til Sitric offered him the same rewards that he’d proffered to Jarl Sigurd: namely, the kingdom and his mother, Gormlaith, to wife. The men agreed, with the understanding that their arrangement would be kept secret from Jarl Sigurd. We have no way of knowing how Sitric would have eventually reconciled these duplicate offers made to his new allies; but presumably he felt that was business for tomorrow, while defeating Brian was the matter at hand. He left with Brodir’s pledge to come to Dublin by Palm Sunday, 1014.
However, Brodir’s brother Ospak was not as enthusiastic. Ospak declared that he for one had no desire to fight against “so good a king” (or one so powerful) as Brian Boru. The brothers quarreled, with Brodir threatening violence against his brother and all who stood with him. The saga is filled with tales of supernatural portents and events at Man following their quarrel, all of which were omens of disaster for Brodir if he persisted in making war against Brian Boru. Whatever actually occurred, the next day Ospak fled from his brother’s army, taking with him a following of 10 ships and their crews (500 men?). He sailed to the western coast of Ireland, and up the Shannon River; where he found King Brian at his capital of Kincora. There Ospak and his band were taken into Brian’s service; and Ospak was baptized a Christian.
Meanwhile on Man, Brodir prepared to take those of his warriors remaining and sail for Ireland; where his destiny awaited.
THE CAMPAIGN OF 1014
In the first months of 1014, “the war arrow” passed throughout the lands adjoining the North Sea. Not just Sigurd of Orkney and Brodir of Man answered Sitric and Gormlaith’s request for allies. Men came from the Scottish Isles, from England, from Iceland and from Scandinavia. Nor were Brian and his ally, Malachi of Meath idle. From all over Ireland chiefs pledged their aid; and even Scottish lairds with ties to Ireland prepared to cross the Irish Sea and join Brian Boru. What began as a family squabble had grown into the greatest contest between the Gael and the Gall since Arthur faced the Saxons at Badon!
On March 17, Brian Boru set out with all the forces who owed him allegiance. His own Dál gCais aside, the chief of these were the princes of Connacht, Mael Ruanaidh Ua hEidhin (O’Hyne) of Hy Fiachrach (south Galloway), and Tadhg Ua Cellaigh (O’Kelly) of Hy-Many. Meathla O’Faelan, Lord of the Deisi-Mumhan, led the men of South Munster. The southern Uí Néill, led by Brian’s ally (not vassal), Malachi of Meath, completed the army: between 7-12,000 men.
The Ard-Rí’s host camped again at Kilmainham, 2.5 miles west of Dublin. From there he sent raiding parties to ravage the rich Danish farmland north of the Liffy River. From Fingall to Howth the farms and villages that fed Dublin were set ablaze. Brian detached a second raiding force of his own Dalcassians under his young son Donnchadh mac Briain (Donogh O’Brian), his son by Gormlaith, south to devastate his uncle Máel Mórda’s lands of Leinster. The lad (who couldn’t have been much older than 13) would be spared the brutal encounter to come; one in which he might find himself matching blades against his own uncle or half-brother.
Watching the smoke rise from the walls of Dublin was Sitric and his mother, as well as Brian’s own daughter, Sláine, who as wife of Sitric viewed the coming events with deep trepidation. With them too was Sitric’s uncle, Máel Mórda, whose Leinstermen were camped around the city in three divisions, guarding the approaches. They fumed at the destruction of their lands, but waited till their allies from across the sea arrived to give battle.
The Viking fleets began arriving on Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday. Though the sources make it seem that fleets of Sigurd and Brodir arrived together on Good Friday, and joined Máel Mórda on the field of Clontarf that same day (one account even suggesting they came, left, then returned again in order to surprise Brian), this is on its face absurd. It would take extraordinary timing and coordination for two separate fleets, one setting out from the Orkney Islands and the other from the Isle of Man, to arrive at Dublin on the same morning. There is no suggestion that the two leaders were in contact, nor working in coordination, prior to arriving at Dublin the week before the battle, where they held a “war council”. But even had Sigurd’s fleet stopped first in Man to link-up with Brodir’s 20 ships (and there is no mention of this in either the saga or the Irish chronicles), their combined forces would be unlikely to have arrived just in time to take part in the battle. They would, instead, have arrived in the Bay of Dublin at the mouth of the Liffey separately, not together, in the days before Good Friday. Sigurd and Brodir would have rested their men, and conferred with their allies in Dublin, making their plans.
The saga talks about Brodir consulting “the gods”concerning the battle to come. He received scant comfort from these auguries: if the allies fought before Good Friday, they would fail and all be destroyed. But if they fought him on that day, Brian would fall, though still triumph. Neither prophecy was good for the allies, but with Brian slain the future was at least more promising. The decision was made: the host would give battle on Good Friday, April 23, 1014.
THE BATTLE SITE
Where was the battle of Clontarf actually fought?
The obvious answer would seem to be at Clontarf, today a suburb 3 miles to the northeast of Dublin. While many accept this at face value, others put the battle further west and south. The question deserves discussion.
The traditional location at Clontarf proper claims the allies left Dublin and marched across the Liffey, then crossed the Tolka, and deployed on the plain between that river and modern Clontarf (then only a weir where fisherman moored their boats, and where the Viking ship were now said to be beached). The battle fought here would have centered on Marino, with the allied left on the Tolka guarding the crossing point (approximately where the Luke Kelly Bridge and Windsor Avenue cross the river today), and their right out as far as where Clontarf Golf Club is today; a frontage of just over a mile.
Traditional view of campaign and deployment of the armies
This theory has only one advantage: it puts the battle close to modern Clontarf.
But it has several logical drawbacks.
First, consider where Brian’s army was located: he was camped at Kilmainham, 2.5 miles west of Danish Dublin. His army would be approaching Dublin from the west. What sense did it make for the allies to march out of Dublin, cross the plain between the Liffey and the Tolka, then cross the Tolka to deploy; all the while exposing their left flank to harassment or outright attack as they marched? Worse, once deployed, what was to keep Brian marching eastward from simply cutting their line of retreat across the Tolka, and attacking their left-wing? Why would the allied commanders march their army 3 miles away from their base, needlessly tiring their troops and (more importantly) exposing their line of retreat? To what purpose?
One response that is usually proffered is that Brian approached Dublin from the north; and that the allies left Dublin to meet him north of the Tolka at Clontarf. But though he sent raiding parties north of the Tolka at Fine Gall and Howth in the days before the battle, all the sources agree he marched that morning from his camp, still at Kilmainham.
Another answer to this question that is usually given is that the Viking’s ships were drawn up on the strand at Clontarf; and they fought to protect these. But this explanation is absurd on its face. Those ships could just have easily been moored on the south bank of the Liffey, east of Dublin, were they in danger.
This rationale also ignores where these ships were likely moored. The coastline near Dublin has changed considerably in the intervening millennium; with centuries of silt deposited by the Liffey and Tolka moving the harbor further east. In the 10th century, the sea reached up the modern course of the Liffey as far as Amiens Street, about where the Famine Memorial stands today. In Brian’s time, the coastline near Clontarf and the Tolka likely ran roughly along the modern Fairview Strand. Fairview Park was tidal flats in Brian’s day. That might put the “weir of Clontarf” (the name given the battle in some of the oldest sources) between Richmond Road at Fairview to (perhaps) Marino College. This would have been a logical place for the Viking ships to have beached, a protected anchorage with a place ashore at the western edge of modern Clontarf for their forces to make camp.
Finally, and most persuasively, we know from the accounts that Sitric, Gormlaith, and Sitric’s wife Sláine (Brian’s daughter) watched the battle avidly from the walls of Dublin. Then the city was wholly on the south side of the Liffey; approximately occupying the area between where now stands Dublin Castle and Trinity College. The Danish fortress, where Sitric’s party watched the battle, would have been on the northwest side, likely near or at the site of the castle . It would be impossible to view the battle clearly, as they apparently could, if the battle were fought on the traditional site north of the Tolka, 3 miles away.
View of Dublin harbor from the shore at Clontarf. The distant lights of Dublin can be seen beyond the harbor towers. It is unlikely that a battle fought here could be viewed from Dublin, as would have to be the case if the battle-site were where usually placed at Clontarf.
All of this suggests an alternative location, similar to what was proposed by Joyce: between the Liffey and the Tolka. This would make far more sense, both protecting the ships moored at Clontarf Weir and staying close to their base (and place of refuge in case of defeat), Dublin. They would not have to make a pointless 3 mile march away from Dublin, exposing their flank in the process. It would also allow Sitric and his party to watch the battle clearly, as the sources agree they did.
The allied line would have been drawn up facing west, with their back to the sea. Dublin would have been on their left, and their flank would have rested on the Liffey near modern Strand Street, guarding the sole crossing point at Dubhghall’s Bridge (tentatively identified as the Father Mathew Bridge at Church Street). Their line would have loosely followed modern Dorsett Street, extending perhaps as far as Drumcondra (as Joyce suggests), though unlikely as far as the Tolka, which would mean a dangerously thin line indeed. I would suggest that the Viking right rested near modern Fitzroy Ave. In the 11th century, a broad forest, Tomar Wood, covered parts of Drumcondra in the north and extended west toward Phibsborough. This would have provided a natural resting place for both armies’ northern flanks. The Irish, coming from Kilmainham, would have deployed facing east, parallel to their enemy; with Tomar Wood on their left and the Liffey on their right. Interestingly, there is an obvious burial mound near where the Irish left flank would have rested, called (intriguingly enough) Brian Boru’s Mound, by Dalcassian Downs. This would accord well with this theory: that after the battle, the Dalcassian dead were buried in a mass grave very near to where they fought and died.
Here was a plain with boundaries upon which the armies could rest their flanks (something every general looks for), with room to deploy two armies of perhaps some 20,000 men .
The flaw to this tentative placement of the battle is exactly the opposite of what commends the traditional location: the battle site is not at all at Clontarf!
But if one moves the weir of Clontarf further west with the shifting coastline, and remember that earlier descriptions of the battle called it the “fight at the weir of Clontarf”, this objection can be overcome. The battle was fought on the old road from Dublin to Clontarf; with the Viking ships and the weir behind the allied right flank.
Though we are placing the battlefield between Dublin and Clontarf, and could more accurately call it the “Battle of Drumcondra”, we will of course continue to call the battlefield “Clontarf”.
THE ARMIES DEPLOY
As dawn broke on Good Friday 1014, the Gaels came to Clontarf.
Brian’s host marched from their camp at Kilmainham in three divisions, the old king riding at their head. First came the fierce Dalcassians, commanded by Brian’s heir Prince Murrogh , numbering perhaps 1,500. With them was Ospak’ force of Manx Vikings, likely another 500 men. These would form the left of the Irish line, opposing the foreign Vikings; though Ospak and his Danes were sent to the opposite flank so they would not have to fight their former comrades. Behind these came the second division, the 2,000 men of South Munster led by Meathla O’Faelan, Lord of the Deisi-Mumhan. With them were brigaded two companies of several hundred Scots commanded by the Great Stewards of Mar and Lennox; related to the south Irish and now come in Brian’s hour of need. 1,500 wild clansmen of Connacht, led by O’Kelly and O’Hyne, formed the third division. Malachi’s Meathmen, perhaps another 3,000 men, marched apart. As Brian’s forces began to deploy, the Meathmen formed up far in the rear, on the hill of Cabra; Malachi intent on holding his kerns in reserve.
There had been dissension among the Irish leaders during the war council the previous day. Brian was loath to fight on Good Friday, especially with part of his forces still raiding in the south under his youngest son, Donnchadh. But hearing that the Gall were intent on battle that day, he decided to accept their challenge and settle the war with a single cast of the die. Perhaps he was worried about a repetition of the previous year’s campaign, when Sitric and Máel Mórda had remained within the walls of Dublin till Brian’s supplies were exhausted. Here was the opportunity to settle the matter. However, for reasons now unknown, Malachi of Meath did not agree with Brian’s plans. Whether the proud Uí Néill disdained the role assigned his Meathmen; or was likewise reluctant to fight on Good Friday; or still nourished a jealous (and all too understandable) grudge against his former rival Brian is unknown, and from the distance of a millennium unknowable. 
So as the Irish army deployed, the men of Meath stood apart. Like Lord Stanley at Bosworth, they would remain on the heights of Cabra observing the battle until both sides were near exhaustion.
King Brian, at 73 years too old to fight in this, his last battle, turned command over to his son Murrogh. Brian would spend the battle in the rear, praying in his tent erected at the edge of Tomar’s Wood. Before he departed, though, he addressed his warriors. His white locks blowing in the wind, high above them astride his horse, Brian called on the kerns and nobles to remember centuries of wrongs visited upon Ireland by the Lochlannach. He reminded them that this was Good Friday, the day their Lord had given his life for them. He exhorted them to fight for their faith and for Ireland.
Waiting for Brian’s host was the allied forces of Leinster, Dublin, the foreign Vikings and contingents from abroad. The Irish chronicle says that these latter came from as far afield as Normandy and France; even stating that a son of the king of France (and also of Lochlann) served in the ranks of the foreign Vikings. This is of course nonsense; but “adventurers” throughout northern Europe, and particularly from the lands of the Vikings, likely came like wolves to share in the despoliation of Brian’s kingdom. We know from Njal’s Saga that several Icelanders came in the service of Jarl Sigurd, having been caught up in the domestic strife that racked their homeland at this time. A prince of Norway, Olaf Haraldson, later to become King Olaf the Stout, was at this very time raiding in the British Isles. It is not impossible that he is the prince the Irish chroniclers have in mind.
The allies deployed with Máel Mórda and his Leinstermen anchoring the left end of the battle line, and protecting the vital crossing point at Dubgall’s Bridge; the only way across the Liffey and their line of retreat back to Dublin. They would oppose the Munster clans, Scots, and Ospak’s Manx Vikings. The center was held by the Hiberno-Scandinavians (Danes and Norse) of Dublin. Sitric would remain in the fortress, with a thousand men to ensure their stronghold’s security. His warriors would be commanded by his half-brother, Dubghall Olafson. He would face the wild men of the west, the clans of Connacht. Finally, on the right flank, the place of honor, stood the “grey men”, the iron-clad shieldwall of foreign Vikings, commanded by Sigurd and Brodir. Leading them were an assortment of lesser chieftains; among them sixteen champions, “captains of fleets” , “every one of them a man to combat a hundred, on land or on sea”. These foreign “gall” would face Brian’s fiercest troops, the Dalcassians led by Prince Murrogh.
In all, the allies number some 7,000 (with perhaps another 1,000 with Sitric defending their stronghold of Dublin. The numbers on the field were roughly equal, with Malachi and the Meathmen standing apart.
The Northmen presented a strong contrast to their Irish foe. They wore conical helmets and were clad in shirts of mail, each ring riveted closed around its neighbor, proof against arrow or slashing blow from sword or dirk. An iron-rimmed round or kite-shaped shield of sturdy leather-covered linden completed each carl’s defensive panoply. They were armed with spear and broadsword, belt ax and saex; and most fearfully of all, the famous five foot long Danish long-ax, capable cleaving a man in twain or beheading a horse with a single stout blow. These legions of lochlann stood in the compact ranks of the shieldwall, each man’s shield touching or overlapping that of the sword-brother to his right. Few warriors anywhere could stand before them, and from Iceland to Constantinople they were accounted the worlds most feared fighting men.
Waving above their iron ranks was Jarl Sigurd’s legendary raven banner. Woven by his witch mother, it was infused with eldritch spells and arcane protections. It was said to ever bring victory in its wake, even while ensuring the doom of the man who bore it.
Unlike their foe the Irish disdained armor, save for a steel casque to protect their heads. Their ranks were as tightly packed as the Vikings’. The chronicle says a “four-horse chariot could run from one end to the other of the lines on either side, on their heads”, meaning traveling on the heads of the warriors without ever touching the ground! The kerns fought with nothing but a tunic (saffron being a favorite color, particularly among the Dalcassians), a leather-covered targe their chief defense. For armament they carried a bundle of darts, short-shafted javelins, and dirks. Many of the warriors had, after years of warfare, adopted the axes so favored by their foreign enemies.
The Dalcassians in particular had obtained a mastery of the single-handed battle-ax. Though it had not the reach of the Danish long-ax, it could shatter Viking mail and cleave the bone beneath.
… and they (the Irish) also carry, heavy battle-axes of iron, exceedingly well wrought and tempered. These they borrowed from the Norwegians and Ostmen, of whom we shall speak hereafter. But in striking with the battle-axe they use only one hand, instead of both, clasping the haft firmly, and raising it above the head, so as to direct the blow with such force that neither the helmets which protect our heads, nor the platting of the coat of mail which defends the rest of our bodies, can resist the stroke….Thus it has happened, in my own time, that one blow of the axe has cut off a knight’s thigh, although it was encased in iron, the thigh and leg falling on one side of his horse, and the body of the dying horseman on the other.” – Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales)
With just such deadly axes the Dalcassians had made themselves the masters of Ireland, and their lord its High King.
THE BATTLE OF CLONTARF
The two armies faced each other at extreme bow range as the chiefs prepared their men for the combat to come. As was common in this age, a Danish champion stepped out of the Viking ranks. He was Platt, who the chronicle calls “the bravest knight of the foreigners”. The night before he had challenged any warrior among the Irish to face him the next day. This call was answered by Donald the Great Steward of Mar, a leader of Brian’s Scottish allies and an ancient enemy of the Dane.
“Where is Donald of Mar”, called Platt three times. “Here I am, rogue”, came the answer from his foe, as he stepped from the Irish ranks. The two faced-off between the armies, who watched the duel as cheering spectators. The champions laid on each other with sword and shield, battling with such ferocity that both soon fell down dead; their swords in each other’s hearts and their other hands gripping their opponent’s beard. They were the first, though far from the last, casualties on the field of Clontarf. 
The battle began now in earnest.
First to make contact were the Dalcassians and the foreign Vikings, laying on with a fierce vengeance. Then the centers engaged, the men of Connacht and the Dublin Danes falling on each other. Last Máel Mórda’s Leinstermen, anchoring the left of the allied line, were assailed by the Deisi of south Munster, supported by Brian’s Scottish and Manx Viking allies. All day long the lines would be locked together, swaying this way and that with the fortunes of battle shifting. There was little in the way of tactics, nor were there cavalry or massed archery. This was one of the last European battles to be fought strictly by infantry, using spear, javelin, sword, and ax to stab and hack each other at close quarters till one side broke.
Early in the battle, the Vikings on the allied right had the better of it, as did the Leinstermen led by Máel Mórda on the left. The Dalcassians gave ground foot-by-stubborn-foot, as the mail-clad Viking shieldwall advanced beneath Sigurd’s grim raven banner. On the allied left the charge of the Munster clans had been checked. Máel Mórda had cut down Prince Maethla O’Faelan with his own hand. Ospak leading his Manx Vikings was wounded during the fierce fighting, in the course of which he would lose both of the sons fighting beneath his banner.
Spear, javelin, and ax heads from the period. Mounted on a 5′ shaft, the “Lochlann” ax was a fearsome weapon, capable of shattering both shields and mail, and the bones beneath!
From the walls of Dublin, Sitric and Gormlaith were elated, watching as Viking axes cut men down like ripe corn. Turning to his wife, Sláine, he said “well do the foreigners reap the field: see how they fling the sheathes to the ground!” Her heart with her countrymen, she quietly replied, “The result will be seen at the close of day.” 
In the center, the Connachta and Dubliners battled with near-suicidal courage. By the end of the day, both were nearly wiped out. The leader of the Dubliners, Sitric’s half-brother Dubgall son of Olaf, was among the dead. As were both O’Kelly (nephew of Malachi) and O’Hyne, chief among the princes of Connacht. The chronicle says that of the men of Connacht only one hundred survived the contest; and of the Dubliners a mere twenty escaped with their lives!
Murrogh raged about the battle, with an elite retinue of seven score sons of kings . Beside him fought his fifteen year old son, Turlogh. Murrogh seems to have acted as something of a fire brigade, charging in where the Irish were hardest pressed, and stemming the enemy’s momentum. He fought with a broadsword in either hand, dealing death wherever he stood.
From the heights behind the battle, Brian Boru sat in his tent, praying, surrounded by a bodyguard and attended by a squire, Laiten. Throughout the day, he would ask Laiten to report what he could see of the battle. At one point (likely in the early afternoon) Laiten reported that “the battalions are locked in deadly struggle, and there blows sound as if a vast multitude were hewing at Tomar’s Wood with heavy axes.” He observed that Prince Murrogh’s banner waived above the Dalcais.
At some point Máel Mórda, on the allied left, found himself facing Conaing Mac Donncuan, a nephew of Brian’s, fighting in the ranks of the men of south Munster (the Irish chronicle calls him king of Desmond). Sixteen men of their respective guards fell around the two leaders, before they slew each other in combat. Thus fell Gormlaith’s brother and Sitric’s uncle; the man’s whose jealous spite started the war that now claimed his life.
On the Viking right, Brodir fought all day at the head of his Manx Vikings, hewing through the Irish shields with his great axe. The saga states that “Brodir went through the host of the foe, and felled all the foremost that stood there, but no steel would bite on his mail.” But then he was met by an Irish warrior called Wolf the Quarrelsome; who may have been a commander of the Dalcassians and even related to Brian. The saga goes on to say Wolf “thrust at him thrice so hard that Brodir fell before him at each thrust, and was well-nigh not getting on his feet again; but as soon as ever he found his feet, he fled away into the wood at once.”
This account of Brodir deserting his men and fleeing would be hard to credit, had it come from the Irish chronicle of the battle. But it is recounted in the Icelandic Saga, which one would expect to be more sympathetic with the Viking side. The Irish chronicle only says that Brodir fled when his fabled mail failed him under the blows of the Dalcassian axes. The desertion of their warlord must have demoralized his followers, locked in brutal combat with the Dalcassians.
Prince Murrogh, enraged at seeing his Dalcais mowed down by the advancing Norsemen, now charged forward where Sigurd’s raven banner stood waving above the Jarl. Cutting his way through the Orkneymen’s shieldburg, he hacked his way to the banner, cutting down its bearer. The fight around the standard was ferocious, as another Norsemen took up the standard, only to also meet his wyrd at the hands of the enraged prince soon after.
Robert E. Howard, writer of fantasy and occassional historical fiction, working from Njal’s Saga captures brilliantly what followed:
Sigurd, seeing his banner fallen once more, struck Murrogh with such desperate fury that his sword bit through the prince’s helmet and gashed his scalp. Blood jetted down Murrogh’s face, and he reeled back…Then a rush of warriors swept the raging chiefs apart.
Sigurd now turned to an Icelander, Thorstein Hallson.
“Thorstein”, shouted Sigurd! Take up the banner!” “Touch it not”, cried (his friend and fellow Icelander) Asmund the White. “For all that bear it die!” (Sigurd turned to a third Icelander) “Hrafn the Red”, called Sigurd desperately, “Bear the banner!” “Bear your own curse”, answered Hrafn! “This is the end of us all.” “Cowards”, roared the Jarl, snatching up the banner himself and striving to gather it under his cloak as Murrogh, his face bloodied and eyes blazing, broke through to him. Sigurd flung up his sword – too late. The weapon in Murrogh’s right hand splintered on his helmet, bursting the straps that held it and ripping it from his head, and Murrogh’s left-hand sword, whistling in behind the first blow, shattered the Jarl’s skull and felled him dead in the bloody folds of the great banner that wrapped about him as he went down. 
With the fall of Sigurd, and evening coming on, the Irish made a concerted push against their now demoralized enemies. The much-thinned allied lines began to give ground. With victory clearly turning toward the Irish, Malachi, watching all this while from the Cabra heights, decided to throw his lot in with Brian. Like hunting hounds whose leash is slipped, the fresh Meathmen rushed down from the heights and threw their weight into the battle. Under this fresh tide, the allies at last broke.
What remained of the foreign Vikings fled towards their ships, left moored at Clontarf Weir. The rest fled back toward Dubgall’s Bridge and the safety of Dublin across the Liffey. But the Irish were fast on their heels, cutting down those who stood and chasing those who fled. The Meathmen succeeded in swarming between the bulk of the fugitives and Dubgall’s Bridge, and a great slaughter of the Gall took place there. As for the Vikings, an unpleasant surprise awaited them.
In one of those strange quirks of irony that history occasionally serves up, the long day’s battle had gone from dawn till dusk. The tide was now at flood, and the Viking’s ships now floated far out beyond the shore – far beyond their reach.
Some tried to swim for the safety of their ships, most drowning in the process. Others were caught by the vengeful Irish at the beach and slaughtered after a brief struggle.
From the walls of Dublin, Sitric’s party watched with mounting horror as their hopes of victory evaporated. Sláine, Brian’s daughter and Sitric’s wife, could not restrain her glee. Watching the Vikings attempting to flee to the shore and being driven into the sea, she mocked them saying, “the foreigners are making fast for their natural inheritance: the sea! They run like a herd of frightened cows!”  Her infuriated husband answered with a blow to her mouth with the back of his hand.
A humorous incident occurred in the midst of the slaughter. Prince Murrogh, leading the pursuit, came upon the Icelander, Thorstein Hallson, who had served Jarl Sigurd. Instead of fleeing or fighting, Thorstein had stopped to tie his shoe; and was now merely looking wistfully at the ships in the distance, out of reach. “Why aren’t you running”, the prince asked him? The Viking shrugged laconically, and replied, “I can’t run back to Iceland”. The Irish found this answer so funny that Murrogh let the Icelander live to return home. 
Tragedy soon followed comedy. Murrogh’s valiant son, fifteen year old Turlough, had fought well in his father’s retinue throughout the day. When the ranks broke up, he joined the chase, losing touch with his father in the process. Pursuing the enemy to the water’s edge, he plunged-in after a fleeing Norseman. His drowned body was later found by the weir, his hands clutched in the hair of his dead Viking prey.
Worst was in store for the Irish, and for the future of the Dalcais. Unaware of his son’s fate, Murrogh continued the pursuit in the fading sunlight, and encountered one of those scattered groups of Northmen still fighting on with desperate courage. This one included a Viking leader named Anrad , described as “head of valor and bravery of the army of Lochlann, and of all the Gall.” He rushed upon Murrogh, who at this point was too exhausted to wield a sword. The prince grappled the Viking, and grasping the hem of Anrad’s mail byrnie, lifted the shirt over the Viking’s head. The Dalcassian prince wrestled his enemy to the ground, where he drove Anrad’s sword through his breast. But at the same moment, before he perished, the Viking slashed the prince across the belly with his knife, mortally wounding him. Murrogh would die, shriven, the following day.
From the heights to the rear, Brian Boru still prayed in his tent. Late in the day he asked his attendant Laiten how went the battle. “The ranks are so mingled and covered with blood and dust that no one could tell friend from foe. Prince Murrogh’s banner still flies above the ranks.” Later, as the sun was setting, Brian again asked Laiten to tell him what he could see. “The ranks are thinned, and only a few brave heroes continue to fight. The Gall now flee, but Prince Murrogh’s standard has fallen.”
“These are evil tidings”, replied the aged king in despair. “If Murrogh has fallen, the valor of the men of Erin is fled, and they will never again see a champion of his like.” 
As the rout of the allies became complete Brian’s guards, eager to join the pursuit, abandoned their posts and left the king alone with only his one attendant. Laiten begged Brian to mount his horse and return to the camp at Killmanham, where he would be safe from marauding Vikings fleeing the stricken field. But Brian replied, “What avails me, now in my old age, to survive Murrogh and the other champions of the Dalcais?”
Laiten’s concerns proved prescient.
Watching from the tent’s entrance, Laiten grew alarmed when he saw men emerging from Tomar’s wood. Brian asked him what they looked like. “Blue and naked men”, came the response. “They are Danes in their armor”, exclaimed the king! 
After fleeing the field and into Tomar’s Wood, Brodir had skirted the edge of the battlefield, working his way behind the Irish flank. Picking up a handful of other fugitives along the way, he now approached Brian’s undefended tent.
As Brodir entered the king’s pavilion the aged Brian rose with his sword in hand. Both men struck simultaneously, Brian’s sword hacking through the Viking leader’s leg, while Brodir’s ax “cleft” the king’s hoary head. By the time the guards returned, the final tragedy of Clontarf was played out: Brian Boru lay dead, with his killer dying beside him. 
The battle left the winners exhausted, and the losers nearly annihilated. When he returned to the Orkneys, Hrafn the Red was asked how many were left of his band: “All fell there”, came the reply . The following day Brian’s younger son Donogh returned with the forces that had been raiding in the south, only to find his father and older brother dead. The day was spent burying the thousands of dead.
Clontarf has been called “the reaping of kings”, where chiefs were garnered like sheaves of wheat at a harvest. Over a dozen kings (or heirs to kings) fell on the Irish side; and with them some 1,600 tribal and clan nobles . Of the allies who challenged Brian that morning on the field of Clontarf, no leader who took the field survived. The Irish chronicle names many leaders of the Gall who fell, most of which are unknown to any other history. Included in the list are two grandsons of Ivar the Boneless.
The death toll is likely 4,000 for the Irish, perhaps more than 50% of their total forces. The allies lost some 7,000 of their fighting men, virtually their entire army. On a percentage basis this makes Clontarf one of the bloodiest battles of the Middle Ages; with a higher proportional loss than the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Clontarf has been portrayed as many things, most of them only partially true: the end of Viking domination in Ireland, the triumph of Christianity over Norse paganism, or even Brian Boru’s last great victory. But the Hiberno-Scandinavians would continue to rule Dublin for another century. Viking raids and invasions would continue as well (though none ever threatened to conquer the island the way Turgeis did in the 9th century). As for paganism, most of the Scandinavian countries had converted (or were in the process of conversion) anyway. Though Brodir and his band were pagans (and likely renegades for that reason), Jarl Sigurd and his Orkneymen were probably Christians (Olaf Trygvasson had converted the islands during his brief reign years earlier). Finally, if this was a “victory” for Brian, it was a “pyrrhic” one indeed.
Though the Irish “won” the battle, perhaps the greatest loser were Brian’s Dalcassians. They marched to Clontarf the premiere clan and their chieftain the High King of all Ireland. The day following the battle they were so depleted that rival Munster clans demanded a return of the hostages given Brian in the previous years, and demanded Donagh turn over Dalcassian hostages as a sign of submission. Donagh would fight to hold his father’s patrimony, with limited success, for the rest of his days. The Dalcassian’s day in the sun was over.
Malachi, who had stayed aloof through most of the battle, garnered the immediate laurels of victory. With Brian dead, he resumed the High Kingship of Ireland. But he never had the authority or stature of Brian Boru, and Ireland degenerated into the same internecine fighting that had divided the island before Brian.
Never would Ireland be closer to unity – to becoming one strong united kingdom – than it was briefly under Brian Boru, and could have been had his strong son, Murrogh, lived to succeed him. No leader of vision and ability came after him, capable of completing his work. While throughout Europe strong monarchs were creating the kingdoms of the Middle Ages, Ireland remained weak and divided.
Little more than a century after Clontarf a king of Leinster would invite the Anglo-Norman marcher lord, Strongbow, into Ireland. The island would subsequently be dominated by the English till the 20th century.
Clontarf was the disaster that made English dominance a dark reality.
1. Njals Saga, Ch 154
2. After his brother detached a third of their fleet and sailed off to join Brian, the remaining two-thirds still under Brodir’s command, and which he brought to Clontarf, numbered 1,000. So one can infer from this that the combined host at Man numbered 1,500; with an average of 50 men per longship.
3. P. W. Joyce, A Concise History of Ireland; Ch. IX
4. That these men and their two leaders are described as Danish pagans is curious. The Danes adopted Christianity sooner than any other Viking race; under King Harald Bluetooth (970 – 975/986) around 960. While pagans were not persecuted, and men were free to practice the old religion in Denmark (unlike in Norway, where a few years later the first Christian king, Olaf Tryggvason , attempted forced-conversion of his pagan subjects), there was certainly every advantage in converting. That Brodir and his band were pagans may be significant: these may have been men who left Denmark as religious dissenters. That these men might have been outlaws from both the secular and religious authorities in their homelands would also explain this band of pagan Vikings at a time when paganism was fading in Scandinavia.
5. MacManus, Seumas (1921). The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland.
6. Joyce, Ch. IX. Lochlann is alternately given to mean either Norway or the Norse realms in Scotland and the western Isles. Could this mean that the brothers were actually Norse, not Danes at all? The royal house of Norway (the Yngling dynasty of Harald Fairhair) was at this time in exile; its heir, Olaf Haraldsson living the life of a Viking warlord and thought to be raiding in England. However, could the Irish source be confusing
7. McCullough, David Willis (2002). Wars of the Irish Kings: A Thousand Years of Struggle, from the Age of Myth Through the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Random House. P. 118
8. Njal’s Saga, Ch. XLIV
10. Armies are always most vulnerable to harassment and attack when strung-out on the march. This is even more acute with tribal or clan armies such as the Irish at Clontarf; where small bands have a great deal of autonomy and little discipline. When engaged by enemy skirmishers, these can be more easily induced to break ranks and engage or pursue such enemies than disciplined, professional troops; and in so doing fall into misfortune.
11. Dublin castle was erected by the Normans in the 12 century, on the high ground were the kings of Dublin likely had their inner fortress and “hall” in the Viking times.
12. The numbers are speculative. Joyce, working mostly from the Irish sources, put the number at an improbable 20,000 on each side (40,000). While a united Ireland could have fielded such a force, the combined armies did not include all of Ireland (the northern O’Neil took no part), and there were only a few thousand foreign fighters present. A more likely number is between 7,000 and 10,000 per side.
13. Malachi’s behavior certainly appears, at best, opportunistic. A passage from a poem about the battle, written in the immediate aftermath by Brian’s court poet, Mac Liag, certainly suggests that the King of Meath contemplated treacherously abandoning Brian, and even advocated that his maternal nephew, the Connacht cheif O’Kelly of Hy Many. Malachi approached his nephew, and offered him riches and honors if he would stay out of the battle. O’Kelly refused, saying he loved Brian and the Dal Cais above all men.
14. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 173
15. Ibid, p. 175
16. Ibid, p.191
17. Idid, p. 169
18. Njal’s Saga, Ch. CLIV
19. Ibid. “Wolf the Quarrelsome” (or Ulf Hroda), as he is called in Njal’s Saga, does not appear in the Irish chronicles. Some have suggested he is synonymous with Cuiduligh mac Cennétig, a brother (or more likely half-brother) of Brian. At least one author has suggested he may be none other than Murrogh himself. The name “Ulf” is a Norse or Danish one, and seems unlikely to have been given to a brother of Brian Boru. It is possible, of course, that “Wolf” was an adopted or foster brother, of Hiberno-Norse heritage. It is of course impossible to say with any certainty, and this question remains a mystery.
20. This version of how Jarl Sigurd met his death, struck down by Murrogh bearing two swords, comes from the Irish chronicle. This event is recorded as happening late in the day, after the allies broke. I have chosen to place it late in the day; and a trigger event for the breaking of the allied host, as I think it would have likely been. Njals Saga merely says Sigurd was killed after taking up the banner with a spear.
21. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 193
22. Njal’s Saga, Ch. CLIV. This is a paraphrase, the true quote being: “I can’t get home to-night, since I am at home out in Iceland.”
23. The Irish chronicle is confusing, calling him first Anrad son of Ebric, king of all Lochlann; and later the son of Elbric. It has been pointed out that this passage might be translation instead as “a warrior, the son of Ebric” (Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 194, fn 3). It is also suggested in the same source that this name could be a garbled version of “Eric”. While there is no known king in Norway, Denmark, or in the Isles by that name in this period; there was a king of Sweden, Eric the Victorious, who could have conceivably had an unknown son who fought and died at Clontarf.
24. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 199
25. Ibid, p. 201
26. Ibid, p. 206
27. In Njal’s Saga, the death of Brodir is portrayed differently. Found soon after by Brian’s returning guards, he is executed in hideous fashion by Wolf the Quarrelsome. In that account, Brian is not completely left undefended; but the “shieldwall” left to defend him was too undermanned to stop Brodir breaking through and cutting down the king. In both accounts, no mention is made of what became of the other warriors accompanying Brodir that Laiten spotted coming from the woods. The Irish Chronicle states that Brian cut both of Brodir’s legs from under him, cutting through the thigh of one and the ankle of the other, in a downward diagonal cut. For any warrior to do this with a broadsword would be a notable feat of arms; but for an aged man of Brian’s years to do so begs credulity, especially when one considers the amount of muscle a large and powerful warrior like Brodir would have had in his legs (not to mention the mail shirt that would have hung to mid-thigh). For this reason I omit this description from the narrative.
28. Njal’s Saga, Ch. CLVI
29. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p.211. Most of these “kings” or heirs were clan or tribal leaders, not kings of one of the major kingdoms of Ireland at the time.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.