Ancient Celtic Warriors: Brian Boru fights the Vikings in Ireland


Part Fourteen of Fifteen Part Series

Ancient Celtic Warriors: Brian Boru Irish Warlord fights the Vikings

The Irish under Brian Boru at Clontarf

Brian Boru had the temper of a Celtic Warlord. Born to violence, he never gave it up. His power base was the tribe of Dal Cais at the mouth of the river Shannon and his prey were the Viking settlers of Limerick. "However small the injury he might be able to do to the foreigners (Vikings)," recalled the chronicler of the Gaedhil, "Brian preferred it to peace. From the forests and the wastelands, he emerged to plunder and to kill the foreigners. If he did not destroy them during the day then he was sure to do it at night." Using guerilla tactics and living off the land, Boru proved a relentless enemy for the Vikings. Finally, the Vikings managed to force him into a "manly battle on the open part of the plain," hoping to overawe his followers with their arms and armor. Both sides rode horses, wore mail, and wielded swords, axes and spears. The battle lasted all day and eventually the Vikings broke. The Irish chased the fleeing Scandinavians and "beheaded from that time until the evening." At the age of 26, Boru stormed into the Viking city of Limerick. His legend had begun.

The sacking of Limerick not only disturbed the Vikings, it impressed other Irish tribesman, and they joined Boru's forces. Until now, the Vikings had successfully played one Irish tribe against another and there was seldom any Celtic unity. However, the more sophisticated Irish warlords were not so pleased. They had come to depend on the trading wealth of the Viking settlements. The lords of Leinster allied themselves with the Vikings of Dublin, and the two Hiberno-Norse armies met around 1000 AD. After a long and hard-fought battle, Brian was victorius and Dublin was ransacked. Immediately, the Vikings made peace with him. Boru was now the lord of southern Ireland, and now he turned his attention to the north. Boru challenged the high king of all Ireland to battle, but politics was stronger than swordsmanship and the chieftains of the north saw little point in slaughtering each other. They made their submissions to him, and Boru became ruler of Ireland, even sending raiding parties to Britain to levy tributes.

King Boru (sitting) is presented a Viking head
by Angus McBride
[King Brian Boru] As Boru grew older his grip on power slipped. The Lords of Leinster and the Vikings of Dublin (reestablished) refused to pay him tribute. He set out to seige Dublin, but for lack of supplies he was forced to retreat. The Vikings, who sent out requests for reinforcements from over the sea, confronted Boru to the north of Dublin in an area called Clontarf. The scene was set for an epic battle. Boru's son, Murchad, was now the active leader and headed the men of Dal Cais and Munster, his most loyal followers, along with many Viking mercenaries and Irish tribes on his flanks. Although history has written this as a battle of Irish against northmen, it was truly an alliance of both sides that met at Clontarf. The Vikings of Dublin and the Leinstermen were joined by Vikings from the Isle of Man and Orkney, and further afield, including Danes and Norwegians. "The two sides made a furious, smashing onset at each other," recalled the Chronicler of the Gaedhil, "and there arose a frightful screaming and fluttering above their heads as birds and demons awaited their prey." This imaginative setting probably refers to the Viking standard, the Raven, the eyes of Odin, who were the symbol of most Norse fleets.

The Irish and the Vikings hacked and slashed at each other. Murchad, son of Brian, held two swords, one in each hand, and felled the Vikings around him. His followers surged behind the gaps he made in the Vikings ranks. Sigurd of Orkney, a Norse jarl, refused to move, and both he and Murchad fought a heroic duel. Legend says that with his right hand sword, Murchad severed the straps securing the Viking's helmet and, with his left hand, brought him down with a blow to his exposed flesh. Murchad moved on to another Viking warlord, but this time his blades broke from use. The Irish warrior was forced to grab to mail of the Viking and pull the shirt of armor off his body with his bare hands. Falling to the ground, both men wrestled with each other. Murchad stabbed the Viking with his own sword, but the Viking pulled a knife and slashed the Celt's stomach open. With a final effort, Murchad cut the head off the Viking, but the next day he would die form his own mortal wounds.

There are two versions of what happened to Brian himself, I will relate the one that is told most often, taken from the writing of the Gaedhil, with the understanding that this may be a slanted view. Because of age, Brian Boru did not take part on the battle, but he waited behind a wall of shields (a practice first introduced by the Vikings). Eventually, he received the news that he wanted. The Vikings had had enough and Clontarf was his. But even though the main body of the army was fleeing, there were still isolated bands of Viking horsemen, and one of these made a dash for the Irish shield wall. Boru was forced to defend himself. Legend says that he hacked at one of the Vikings and cut off his leg, but the Viking struck back and cut Boru's head in half. At the moment of his greatest success, Boru was dead. In the aftermath, the unity of the Irish tribes collapsed and the Vikings returned to their old settlements, but never again would they seek to dominate the Irish people. In fact, as elsewhere, the Vikings and Irish mixed and some of the northmen eventually became 'Irish' themsleves. Brian's greatest achievement was that he was the first of the High Kings of Ireland to have united nearly all of Ireland. Although his death would allow the Vikings to return, they did so with more caution, and the Irish even joined in the raiding of others.

Next, in Part 15 Celtic Warriorsof
  • Scottish Lords of the Isles - The Lords of the Isles take control of Scottish coast.

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