A game of thrones: Leinster versus Munster at the Battle of Clontarf
This 23 April is the 1,000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf. For a long time it was generally thought that at Clontarf Brian Bórú chased the Vikings from Ireland. However, the events are not that simple and are much more complex. Both sides were locked in alliances with other thrones and kingdoms. While Leinster was allied with the Vikings, Bórú also had Viking allies. The main opponents of the High King were the brother and son of his estranged wife, Gormlaith, while Bórú’s daughter, Sláine, was also married to Viking king of Dublin, Sitric Silkbeard.
Máelmórda mac Murchada held the title ri Airthir Liphi – ‘king of the Eastern Liffey Plain’ – at the time of the Battle of Clontarf and was Brian Bórú’s principal Irish opponent in the fight. The Battle of Clontarf was not only the climax of Leinster’s rebellion against the Munster king Brian Bórú, but was also the culmination of the Uí Dúnlainge overkinship of the province after 300 years of rule.Máelmórda’s sister, Gormlaith, had married Brian Bórú, and both Irish and Norse sources paint her as a malign force, who became embittered with Bórú and helped to initiate the Battle of Clontarf by urging her brother Máelmórda to rebel against her husband.
Gormlaith was born in Naas around 955, the daughter of Murchadh mac Finn, Lord of Naas, King of Leinster. As head of the Uí Fháeláin, a powerful dynasty based at Naas, and one of the three branches of Uí Dúnlainge that alternated the overkingship of Leinster between them, Murchad had four sons – Faelán, Máelmórda, Muiredach and Máel Carmain – and one daughter, Gormlaith. The identity of her mother is unclear, but Celtic scholar Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin believes that she was a Norse servant or slave, probably taken by an Irish raiding party and perhaps forcibly baptised. This might explain her undying support, and also Máelmórda’s support, to her first-born, half-Viking son, Sitric. It would also explain the animosity towards Gormlaith in Irish and Norse literature. The medieval Icelandic Njáls saga described Gormlaith as ‘a most beautiful woman who showed the best qualities in all matters that were not in her power, but in all those that were, people said she showed herself of an evil disposition’. In Irish literature she is painted as an evil, vengeful queen and the instigator of the Battle of Clontarf.
It is believed that Gormlaith had been married three times to three famous kings, attesting Uí Fháeláin’s involvement at the highest level of dynastic politics during this period. These marriages were political contracts rather than love matches. Gormlaith first married the Norse king, Olaf Cúarán, with whom she bore a son, Sitric Silkbeard; she then married Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, the king of Tara – with whom, it was thought, but not confirmed, she also bore a son, Conchobhar; she then Brian Bórú, with whom it is also thought she bore a son, Donnchad. All three marriages are remarked upon in a witty stanza preserved in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland:
Gormlaith took three leaps,
Which a woman shall never take [again],
A leap at Ath-cliath, a leap at Teamhair,
A leap at Caiseal of the goblets over all.
Gormlaith’s first husband was Olaf Cúarán – known as ‘Olaf of the Sandal,’ because he liked Irish footwear. Olaf had come to Dublin in 952 when he lost his throne in Northumbria. At that time Ath-cliath, or Dublin, founded by Vikings as a permanent raiding-camp, was Ireland’s first genuine town with an economy based primarily on craft-working and trading, both locally and internationally. According to the Irish annalists Olaf was a Christian. Dublin Vikings had been converting to Christianity since 930 and the city Olaf ruled had timber churches where Christ was worshipped instead of the gods of the Norse and Danes. As part of a contractual alliance with the Leinster kingship Olaf married Gormlaith, probably in the late 960s, when she was in her mid-teens and he was possibly in his fifties. In this period girls were married early, probably as soon as they were capable of bearing children. Her father, Murchadh, may have arranged this marriage. Gormlaith bore Olaf a son, Sitric, and in all accounts, she appears to favour him above the others.
In 979 the Dublin Vikings were defeated by the Ardrí (High King) Máel Sechnaill, son of Domhnall Ua Néill a prince of the Southern Uí Néill, at Tara(Teamhair). The following year Máel Sechnaill(also known as Malachy the Great, or Malachy II), marched on Dublin and following a siege that lasted three days, captured the city, took much plunder and freed 2,000 Irish slaves. Máel Sechnaill made it plain that Dublin was now under his authority and that the Vikings would have to pay him tribute as the High King of Ireland. Olaf, the old Viking, could not stand for this. He abdicated and went off to the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides on pilgrimage. Máel Sechnaill occupied Dublin, and installed Olaf’s son, Sitric, as its ruler in return for paying him considerable tribute. Olaf died at a monastery on Iona in 981, at which point Gormlaith returned to Ireland. (It is also possible that Gormlaith never left Dublin and stayed to protect her own and her son’s interests.) In a possible strategic move, Máel Sechnaill married Gormlaith, around 984, becoming Sitric’s stepfather. Sitric may have expressed a willingness to do the High King’s bidding, but he still considered himself an independent king. Whatever, the course Dublin continued to remain a Viking stronghold.
In 982 Brian Bórú, then secure as king of Munster, marched his armies out of the province for the first time and launched an assault on neighbouring Osraige. A Leinster alliance would have proved useful at this point and he found an ally in Máelmórda mac Murchada. His father, Murchad, overking of the province, was treacherously killed in 972 by Domhnall Claen, after they had eaten and drank together, at which point the kingship went to the second branch, Uí Muiredaig, and then in 978 to the third branch, Uí Dúnchada, after which the conventional expectation was that the next overking would be Máelmórda. But when the Uí Dúnchada incumbent died in 984 Máelmórda failed to secure it for his line. An alliance with the king of Munster might just hand the kingship back to Máelmórda.
Máel Sechnaill marched on Dublin again in 989 after he learned that the Leinster men had formed an alliance with his rival, Bórú, for the highkingship of Ireland. After a siege of twenty days Sitric capitulated and recognised his stepfather as overlord of Dublin, and promised to pay an ounce of gold for ‘every garden’ in the city, payment to be made annually on Christmas night. It is unknown if Gormlaith was in Dublin at the time of the siege, but it seems likely that she was then estranged from Máel Sechnaill. Some time later, Máel Sechnaillagain visited Dublin and to make Sitric’s humiliation complete carried off the ring of Tomar and the sword of Carlus, two heirlooms of the 9th century much valued by the Norsemen. The position was stalemated, but Sitric and his maternal uncle Máelmórda, along with Gormlaith, plotted against the high king.
When Brian Bórú brought his army into Leinster in 998 he secured the submission of its overking, Donnchad of Uí Dúnchada. (An overkingship consisted of a king’s power being recognized by another kingdom. This would usually be established by a military campaign. An overking had power over other lesser kings, like the king of Naas, etc.)However, Donnchad was taken captive by the Norse king of Dublin, Sitric, and Máelmórda, his rival for the Leinster overkingship. Donnchad was deposed for the time being, while Máelmórda took the title in his place. Máel Sechnaill was in no doubt that Gormlaith was part of the conspiracy and her repudiation, under the Brehon law, must have followed swiftly on the events in Kildare.
Both Máel Sechnaill and Brian Bórú decided to undertake a major military advance into Leinster. Their combined armies met the Leinstermen and Norsemen at the Battle of Glenn Máma (between Rathcoole and Kill) on 30 December 999. The battle was the greatest triumph of Bórú’s career to date and the slaughter on both sides was immense. Sitric’s brother, Haraldr, next in line to the Dublin throne, was among the dead. The day after the battle Máelmórda was captured, hiding in a yew tree and dragged from it by Bórú’s son Murchad. His life was spared, a mistake Bórú would live to regret.
Bórú and his new ally, Máel Sechnaill, stormed the dún, or fortress, of Dublin on New Year’s Day 1000. They burned the dún (present day site of Dublin Castle) carried off its gold, silver and captives and expelled its king, Sitric, who fled by ship to the east Ulster kingdom of Ulaid. Sitric negotiated a return to Dublin, only by making formal submission to Bórú and handing over his hostages, including Donnchad, king of Leinster. The Norseman was reinstated as king of Dublin, but Sitirc was now Bórú’s vassal and owed him military service in return. Bórú further cemented his alliance with Sitric by marrying off one of his daughters, Sláine, to the Norse king. Máelmórda, was kept in captivity until all the hostages of Leinster were freed at which point he was released.
To make his position, and his ambition, perfectly clear to Dublin, Leinster and Meath, Bórú took Gormlaith, mother of Sitric and repudiated wife of Máel Sechnaill, as his second wife. Bórú, nearing sixty, was still an active man and Gormlaith, in her mid-forties, was undoubtedly an attractive woman. The union was a sound political move. Gormlaith reputedly had one son for Bórú, Donnchad, who lived until 1064 and succeeded his father immediately after Clontarf. He died in Rome as an old man, but would have only been fifteen at the time of Clontarf, so was possibly the son of Brian’s wife, Dubhchobhlaigh. Under Brehon law it was permissible for a man to have more than one wife and it would appear that Bórú was married to two women at once. Dubhchobhlaigh would have been Bórú’s ‘lawful’ wife, while Gormlaith a secondary, perhaps temporary wife, fully recognised by law and everyone at the time.
Bórú had set his eyes on the Ardrí of Ireland and with an army drawn from Munster, Dublin, Leinster and Connacht marched on Tara. He made short work of Cathal of Connaught on the way and sent a messenger to Máel Sechnaill, asking for his abdication. Máel Sechnaill, aware of Bórú’s strength had appealed to the northern Uí Néill, but help was not forthcoming. The inability of the north to put aside personal jealousy and join in a united front against Bórú, or the Norse and Leinster incursions, led to Máel Sechnaill having no choice but to abdicate the highkingship in favour of the Munster king.
The new High King was declared ‘Briain Imperatoris Scotorum’ – Brian, Emperor of the Irish – Scots, or Scoti, being the name given to the Irish until the following century. In 1003 Bórú deposed Donnchad and hoping to keep the Leinstermen in check, installed Máelmórda as king of Leinster. Ireland endured a decade of peace, but in 1012 Bórú imposed a fresh tribute, or Bóramha, on Leinster. The Bóramha had long caused bitterness in kings and people and the Annals of Clonmacnoise record the annual tribute as being 150 cows, 150 hogs, 150 coverletts (to cover beds), 150 cauldrons, 150 couples (men and women) in servitude and 150 maids, including the king of Leinster’s own daughter.
Dubhchobhlaigh, Bórú’s wife had died in 1009, which left Gormlaith residing at Bórú’s court in Kincora. Medieval scholar Roger Chatterton Newman believes that the re-imposition of the Bóramha on Leinster could have been because Gormlaith, snubbed and isolated by her step-sons, might have left Kincora for her brother’s court and Brian, prompted perhaps by his favourite son, Murchadh, reimposed the hated tribute. Bórú knew that Leinster looked down on him as an interloper in the matter of kingship and he imposed a much heavier tribute on the rebellious province-kingdom. When the tribute was not forthcoming Murchadh was sent to plunder Leinster.
Bórú tried to mend the rift with Máelmórda, but Gormlaith was at the centre of a conspiracy, inciting her brother to rebellion, out of shame felt at the subordination of her province of Leinster to Bórú’s overlordship. Leinster withdrew its official submission to the High King and prepared for battle. Sitric of Dublin promised support to his uncle, who also sought aid from the Uí Néill in Aileach and other Irish princes. Máelmórda’s allies attacked Bórú’s loyal ally, Máel Sechnaill in Meath. The king of Tara retaliated leading an army into the Norse-controlled territory of north Co. Dublin and burning Sitric’s heartland from Fingal to the Hill of Howth, but a contingent of his army was overtaken south of Swords and defeated by Sitric and Máelmórda. The two kings continued their attacks on Máel Sechnaill’s kingdom of Meath, from which they brought back plunder and captives to Dublin. Sitric travelled overseas to gain more aid and support from Vikings outside Ireland, most notably Earl Sigurd of Orkney and Brodir of the Isle of Man. Sitric promised Sigurd his mother’s hand in marriage and overlordship of the eastern kingdoms on the death of Bórú. The conflict Gormlaith engineered now came to a climax at the Battle of Clontarf.
The two armies met at Clontarf on Good Friday, 23 April 1014. Bórú had an army of around 5,000, mainly Munster men, but also his allies from Tara and Meath, and Vikings from the south. Facing them was an army of around 3,000 Leinstermen, ‘foreign’ Norsemen and Dublin Norsemen. At the head of the Leinstermen was Máelmórda mac Murchada, king of Leinster. Sitric did not take part in the battle, remaining within the dún of Dublin to ensure it did not fall into Irish hands, as it had after the Battle of GlennMáma. He watched the course of the fight unfold from the wooden battlements of Dublin. With him was his wife, Sláine, daughter of Brian Bórú, and possibly his mother Gormlaith, wife of Brian Bórú.
Clontarf was the bloodiest battle in Irish history up to that time. The battle saw the Norse and Leinster army annihilated. Every one of their leaders, Máelmórda, Sigurd, and Brodir were slain; Sitric’s brother, Dubgall was killed leading the Dublin contingent. Máelmórda fell on the battlefield, but it is unknown how. There also fell an Uí Muiredaig prince, Tuathal mac Augaire, who was a potential king of Leinster, and the son of Brogarbán mac Conchobair, from whom the Uí Conchobair Failgi (O’Connor Faly) descend. Although victorious Brian was killed by Brodir of Man, who was fleeing the battle. Brodir gathered a few warriors and burst through the thinned pen of shields guarding the seventy-three-year-old High King and killed him with a blow of his axe. He was instantly captured and subsequently suffered a very long, cruel, and grisly death.
The Irish paid dearly for their victory though, with the death of Brian Ború, his son Murchad, grandson Turlough, brother Cuduiligh, and nephew Conaing. In addition ten Munster kings and many other nobles also perished. Bórú’s army was too depleted to attack Dublin where Sitric was in a better position to repel any onslaught. Donnchad, as senior over his brother Tadhg, succeeded Brian and lead the survivors of Clontarf home to Kincora.
The Norsemen of Ireland were not seriously affected in their position by the Irish victory at Clontarf, but it did signal the end of paganism among them. The national distinction between the Irish and the Vikings, however, continued until after the Anglo-Norman arrival. In many instances the Norse sided with the Gaelic chieftains against the Normans.
From Máelmórda’s son Bran (d.1052) the Uí Dúnlainge dynasty adopted the surname Ua Brain (O’Byrne). He became king in 1016 after the deaths in quick succession of two other rulers of Leinster. Four years after Clontarf Sitric blinded, in Dublin, Bran – his cousin – and within a few decades the Uí Dúnlainge were permanently ousted from the overkingship of Leinster by the long-overshadowed Uí Chennselaig in the south of the province. The annals record that Gormlaith died in 1030, aged in her seventies. What happened Gormlaith after Clontarf is open to conjecture – she could have lived within the protected walls of her son’s kingdom, or returned to Naas and a quiet end within monastic walls, as other women of her mould had done. In the end, Gormlaith’s intrigues had led to the weakening and, eventually, destruction of the power of her own family in Leinster and that of her son in Dublin.
In 1028 after a much publicised pilgrimage to Rome Sitric Silkbeard gave a grant of gold and treasure and a site to build a church dedicated to the Holy Trinity, establishing what would become Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. Sitric’s death is recorded as 1042, but his burial place is unknown. It may reasonably be assumed to have been in the Dublin colony in Gwynedd, Wales, where his descendents constituted the ruling dynasty. His daughter, Cailleach Fionáin, died in the same month, but it is unsure if she was the daughter of Sláine, who had watched the rout of the Leinstermen and the Norsemen by her kinsmen, the Munstermen, from the walls of Dublin.