ACCORDING TO the history books we had in school in the early sixties, The Battle of Clontarf was described in terms of a religious victory in which the great Catholic Irish hero Brian Boru annihilated the pagan Vikings and threw them out of Ireland.
We were told this was the first great defeat of the Vikings in Europe and the beginning of their military downfall. The religious element was heightened by the fact the battle took place on Good Friday and because it was the religious day it was, Brian Boru, then in his seventies if not eighties, did not partake, but spent the day in prayer preparing his soul for the holy feast of Easter. A lone marauding Viking came up him and with one blow of his axe, beheaded him.
In early sixties Ireland everything was black and white (or rather white and black ). It was a question of the Catholics of Ireland versus the rest of the world and every battle had to have its martyr - the higher the rank, the better.
Next year marks the millennial anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf which took place on Good Friday, April 23 1014. It was indeed a major victory for Brian Boru, the ‘upstart’ High King of Ireland, and a major defeat for the Lochlannaigh. Brian was a good age for the times. He did not take part in the battle and was slain while at prayer.
What else occurred before, during, and after, the battle however is unclear. Seán Duffy’s informative new book, Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf, published by Gill and Macmillan, goes a long way to clarify for ordinary readers the full story of the whys, whos, and wherefores of this watershed battle and the political realities of the time.
Given the fact the only solid resources Duffy had to work with were the few Annals and Genealogies that have survived since the 11th century, and that these often gave conflicting reports of the salient events, Duffy’s achievement in making the story accessible to the normal punter is nothing less than spectacular. Using a Holmesian technique of deduction, he dissects and analyses each one of the Annals and distils the information in them into a comprehensible narrative that, at times, reads almost like a thriller.
Duffy sets the tone by describing the highly complicated dynastic society that existed in medieval Ireland. He presents an Ireland constantly in flux with a never ending succession of battles, raids, submissions, and hostage taking.
Political allegiance was extremely fragile and given the ease with which clans changed sides, there are times when the reader might be excused for seeing parallels with modern day Premier League football. There was a season for battles and another for changing loyalties just as today there is a season for games and another for transfers.
As Duffy moves on to Brian Boru’s rise to power, leading to the Battle itself, the narration takes on a different energy and becomes even more intriguing. Now we have moved from the provincial to the national and international stage and, to give the story some spice, the emergence of a femme fatale.
There was, undoubtedly, a great deal of truth in the basic facts we were taught at school but there was also a great deal of hagiography and triumphalism. In Sean Duffy’s fascinating book, the reader is presented with a much more complicated and interesting story with tribal, national, and international implications.
The battle itself bears witness to the first emergence of a national identity and probably is the only time in our history a foreign invader was comprehensively routed in a single engagement but Duffy’s narrative goes deeper than that. In presenting us with this important book, he has done us a wonderful service.