Battle of Clontarf

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


BRIAN soon became fully aware of the scheme at which the Danes all over Europe were laboring, and of the terrible trial approaching for Ireland. Through all the autumn of that year 1013, and the spring months of the year following, the two powers, Danish and Irish, were working hard at preparations for the great event, each straining every energy and summoning every resource for the crisis. Toward the close of March, Brian's arrangements being completed, he gave the order for a simultaneous march to Kilmainham,[1] usually the camping ground and now the appointed rendezvous of the national forces. By the second week in April there had rallied to the national standard a force which, if numerically unequal to that assembled by the invaders, was, as the result showed, able to compensate by superior valor for whatever it lacked in numbers.

The lords of all the southern half of the kingdom—the lord of Decies, Inchiquin, Fermoy, Corca-Baiskin, Kinalmeaky, and Kerry—and the lords of Hy-Manie and Hy-Fiachra in Connaught, we are told, hastened to Brian's standard. O'More and O'Nolan of Leinster, and Donald, Steward of Mar, in Scotland, continues the historian, "were the other chieftains who joined him before Clontarf, besides those of his own kindred," or the forces proper of Thomond.[2] Just one faint shadow catches the eye as we survey the picture presented by Ireland in the hour of this great national rally. The northern chieftains, the lords of Ulster, alone held back. Sullen and silent, they stirred not. "They had submitted to Brian; but they never cordially supported him."

The great Danish flotilla, under Brodar, the admiral-in-chief, entered Dublin Bay on Palm Sunday, the 18th of April, 1014. The galleys anchored, some of them at Sutton, near Howth, others were moored in the mouth of the river Liffey, and the rest were beached or anchored in a vast line stretching along the Clontarf shore, which sweeps between the two points indicated. Brian immediately swung his army round upon Glassnevin, crossed the Tolka at the point where the Botanical Gardens now stand, and faced his line of battle southward toward where the enemy were encamped upon the shore. Meantime, becoming aware that Maelmurra, prince of Leinster, was so eager to help the invader that he had entered the Danish camp with every man of his following, Brian secretly dispatched a body of Dalcassians, under his son Donagh, to dash into the traitor's territory and waste it with fire and sword. The secret march southward of the Dalcassians was communicated to Maelmurra by a spy in Brian's camp, and, inasmuch as the Dalcassians were famed as the "invincible legion" of the Irish army, the traitor urged vehemently upon his English allies that this was the moment to give battle—while Brian's best troops were away. Accordingly, on Holy Thursday, the Danes announced their resolution to give battle next day. Brian had the utmost reluctance to fight upon that day, which would be Good Friday, thinking it almost a profanation to engage in combat upon the day on which our Lord died for man's redemption. He begged that the engagement might be postponed even one day; but the Danes were all the more resolute to engage on the next morning, for, says an old legend of the battle, Brodar, having consulted one of the Danish pagan oracles, was told that if he gave: battle upon the Friday Brian would fall.

With early dawn next day, Good Friday, 23d of April, 1014, all was bustle in both camps.[3] The Danish army, facing inland, northward or northeast, stretched along the shore of Dublin Bay; its left flank touching and protected by the city of Dublin, its center being about the spot, where Clontarf castle now stands, and its right wing resting on Dollymount. The Irish army, facing southward, had its right on Drumcondra, its center on Fairview, and its extreme left on Clontarf. The Danish forces were disposed of in three divisions, of which the first, or left, was. composed of the Danes of Dublin, under their king, Sitric, and the princes Dolat and Conmael, with the thousand Norwegians already mentioned as clothed in suits of ringed mail, under the youthful warriors Carlus and Anrud; the second, or central division, was composed chiefly of the Lagenians, commanded by Maelmurra himself, and the princes of Offaly and of the Liffey territory; and the third division, or right wing, was made up of the auxiliaries from the Baltic and the Islands, under Brodar, admiral of the fleet, and the earl of Orkneys, together with some British auxiliaries from Wales and Cornwall. To oppose these the Irish monarch also marshaled his forces in three corps or divisions. The first, or right wing, composed chiefly of the diminished legions of the brave Dalcassians, was under the command of his son Morrogh, who had also with him his four brothers, Tiege, Donald, Conor, and Flann, and his own son (grandson of Brian), the youthful Torlogh, who was but fifteen years of age. In this division also fought Malachy with the Meath contingent. The Irish center division comprised the troops of Desmond, or South Munster, under the commander of Kian, son of Molloy, and Donel, son of Duv Davoren (ancestor of The O'Donoghue), both of the Eugenian line. The Irish left wing was composed mainly of the forces of Connaught, under O'Kelly, prince of Hy-Manie (the great central territory of Connaught); O'Heyne, prince of Hy-Fiachra Ahna; and Echtigern, king of Dalariada. It is supposed that Brian's army numbered about 20,000 men.[4]


[1] The district north and south of the Liffey at this point—the Phoenix Park, Kilmainham, Inchicore, and Chapel-Izod—was the rendezvous.

[2] "Under the standard of Brian Borumha also fought that day the Maermors, or Great Stewards of Lennox and Mar, with a contingent of the brave Gaels of Alba. It would even appear, from a Danish account, that some of the Northmen who had always been friendly to Brian, fought on his side at Clontarf. A large body of hardy men came from the distant maritime districts of Connemara; many warriors flocked from other territories, and, on the whole, the rallying of the men of Ireland in the cause of their country upon that occasion, as ouch as the victory which their gallantry achieved, renders the event a proud and cheering one in Irish history."—Haverty.

[3] Haverty says: "The exact site of the battle seems to. be tolerably well defined. In some copies of the Annals it. is called ' the Battle of the Fishing-weir of Clontarf:' and the weir in question must have been at the mouth of the Tolka, about the place where Ballybough Bridge now stands. It also appears that the principal destruction of" the Danes took place when in their flight they endeavored to cross the Tolka, probably at the moment of high water, when great numbers of them were drowned; and it is expressly stated that they were pursued with great slaughter 'from the Tolka to Dublin.'" I, however, venture, though with proper diffidence, to suggest that the 'Fishing-weir' stood a short distance higher up the river, to wit, at Clonliffe, directly below where the College of the Holy Cross now stands. For there is, in my opinion, ample evidence to show that at that time the sea flowed over the flats on the city side, by which Ballybough Bridge is now approached, making a goodly bay, or wide estuary, there; and that only about the point I indicate was a fishing-weir likely to have stood in 1014.

[4] Abridged from Haverty.