On the Plain of Ossory after the Battle of Clontarf

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THREE days after the battle the decimated but victory-crowned Irish legions broke up camp and marched homeward to their respective provinces, chanting songs of triumph. The Dalcassians (who had suffered terribly in the battle) found their way barred by a hostile prince, Fitzpatrick, lord of Ossory, whose opposing numbers vastly exceeded their effective force, which indeed was barely enough to convey or convoy their wounded homeward to Kincora. In this extremity the wounded soldiers entreated that they might be allowed to fight with the rest. "Let stake " they said, "be driven into the ground, and suffer each of us, tied to and supported by one of these stakes, to be placed in his rank by the side of a sound man." "Between seven and eight hundred wounded men," adds the historian, "pale, emaciated, and supported in this manner, appeared mixed with the foremost of the troops! Never was such another sight exhibited!"[1]

Keating's quaint narrative of the event is well worthy of quotation. He says: "Donagh then again gave orders that one-third of his host should be placed on guard as a protection for the wounded, and that the other two-thirds should meet the expected battle. But when the wounded men heard of these orders, they sprang up in such haste that their wounds and sores burst open; but they bound them up in moss, and grasping their lances and their swords, they came thus equipped into the midst of their comrades. Here they requested of Donncadh, son of Brian, to send some men to the forest with instructions to bring them a number of strong stakes, which they proposed to have thrust into the ground, 'and to these stakes,' said they, 'let us be bound with our arms in our hands, and let our sons and our kinsmen be stationed by our sides; and let two warriors, who are unwounded, be placed near each one of us wounded, for it is thus that we will help one another with truer zeal, because shame will not allow the sound man to leave his position until his wounded and bound comrade can leave it likewise.' This request was complied with, and the wounded men were stationed after the manner which they had pointed out. And, indeed, that array in which the Dal g-Cais were then drawn, was a thing for the mind to dwell upon in admiration, for it was a great and amazing wonder."

Our national minstrel, Moore, has alluded to this episode of the return of the Dalcassians in one of the melodies:

"Forget not our wounded companions, who stood
In the day of distress by our side:
While the moss of the valley grew red with their blood,
They stirred not, but conquered and died.
The sun that now blesses our arms with his light
Saw them fall upon Ossory's plain;
Oh! let him not blush, when he leaves us tonight,
To find that they fell there in vain!"

With the victory of Clontarf the day of Ireland's unity and power as a nation may be said to have ended. The sun of her national greatness, that had been waning previously, set suddenly in a brilliant flash of glory. If we except the eight years immediately following Brian's death, Ireland never more knew the blessing of national unity—never more was a kingdom, in the full sense of the word. Malachy Mor—well worthy of his title "the great"—the good, the magnanimous, the patriotic, and brave king, whom Brian had deposed, was unanimously recalled to the throne after Brian's death. The eight years during which Malachy ruled in this the second term of his sovereignty, were marked by every evidence of kingly ability and virtue on his part. At length, finding death approaching, he retired for greater solititude to an island in Lough Ennel (now called Cormorant Island), whither repaired sorrowfully to his spiritual succor "Amalgaid, Archbishop of Armagh, the abbots of Clonmacnoise and of Durrow, and a good train of clergy;" and where, as the old chronicles relate it, "after intense penance, on the fourth of the nones of September, died Malachy, the pillar of the dignity and nobility of the western world."

He was the last "unquestioned" monarch of Ireland. The interval between his death and the landing of Henry the Second (over one hundred and fifty years) was a period of bloody and ruinous contention that invited—and I had almost said merited—the yoke of a foreign rule. After Malachy's death, Brian's younger son, Donogh, claimed the throne; but his claim was scorned and repudiated by a moiety of the princes, who had, indeed, always regarded Brian himself as little better than an usurper, though a brave and a heroic sovereign. Never afterward was an Ard-Ri fully and lawfully elected or acknowledged. There were frequently two or more claimants assuming the title at the same time, and desolating the country in their contest for sovereignty. Brian had broken the charmed line of regulated succession that had, as I have already detailed, lasted through nearly two thousand years. His act was the final blow at the already loosened and tottering edifice of centralized national authority. While he himself lived, with his own strong hand and powerful mind to keep all things in order, it was well; no evil was likely to come of the act that supplied a new ground for wasting discords and bloody civil strife.

But when the powerful hand and the strong mind had passed away; when the splendid talents that had made even the deposed monarch, Malachy, bow to their supremacy, no longer availed to bind the kingdom into unity and strength, the miseries that ensued were hopeless. The political disintegration of Ireland was aggravated a thousand-fold. The idea of national unity seemed as completely dead, buried, and forgotten, when the Normans came in, as if it never had existence among the faction-split people of Erinn.

'Twas self-abasement paved the way
For villain bonds and despot's sway.

Donogh O'Brien, never acknowledged as Ard-Ri, was driven from even his titular sovereignty by his own nephew, Torlogh. Aged, broken, and weary, he sailed for Rome, where he entered a monastery and ended his life "in penance," as the old chronicles say. It is stated that this Donogh took with him to Rome the crown and the harp of his father, the illustrious Brian, and presented them to the pope.[2] This donation of his father's diadem to the pope by Donogh has sometimes been referred to as if it implied a bestowal of the Irish sovereignty; a placing of it, as it were, at the disposal of the Father of Christendom, for the best interests of faction-ruined Ireland herself, and for the benefit of the Christian religion. Perhaps the pope was led so to regard it. But the Supreme Pontiff did not know that such a gift was not Donogh's to give! Donogh never owned or possessed the Irish sovereignty; and even if he had been unanimously elected and acknowledged Ard-Ri (and he never was), the Irish sovereignty was a trust to which the Ard-Ri was elected for life, and which he could not donate even to his own son, except by the consent of the Royal Electors and Free Clans of Erinn.


[1] O'Halloran.

[2] The harp is still in existence. It is in the Museum of Trinity College, Dublin.