The land over which Brian Boru had made himself High King, or Ard Ri was still heavily forested and rich in natural resources. Cattle were the economic backbone of the country. Viking-built trading cities such as Dublin and Limerick were exceptions; Ireland remained rural, dependent upon the land, suspicious of urban life.
Social structure was complex. A High King ruled from Meath, exerting varying degrees of power, dependent upon his personal strength, upon the provincial kings of Munster, Ulster Connacht, and Leinster, who in turn claimed tribute from their under-kings, or clan chieftains. Alliances shifted like the turn of the tide. Until Brian Boru rose from obscurity to become first king of Munster, then of Ireland, there had been no sense of national purpose or even of nationhood at all, the land merely being a large island which held a variety of frequently warring tribes. But this was to be expected..
The Gael had, for over a millennium, been a warrior aristocracy in the mould of Homer’s Mycenaens. Isolated on an island in the Atlantic, they had long been accustomed to earning their claims to heroism and keeping their battle skills sharp by fighting one another.Sometimes their warfare was little more than stylised ritual; sport. Often it was more savage. The advent of the Danes and Norsemen had introduced a new element as issues of trade and taxation, as well as landholding, further divided the people.
Though historians may always argue about his character and motives, Brian the son of Cinneide, prince of the Dal Caid, was undeniably a man ahead of his time.
Although upon coming to power originally he made his goal the destruction of the foreigners, he was gifted with a larger view. In time he realised that the Scandinavians – who did not call themselves Vikings, as Viking was a verb describing raiding and plunder – had been in Ireland for centuries. They were well established here, they had put down roots and intermarried. Their art forms had enriched indigenous art forms, their trade had become important to Ireland’s economy. In short, they could not simply be driven out.
They could, however, be made Irish. Brian Boru saw as no man had before him that this involved thinking of Ireland as nation. He even went so far as to style himself Emperor of the Irish in the Book of Armagh, in his effort to unify the land into a prosperous coalescence of its differing inhabitants. His was the first and most nearly successful of all attempts to create a strong, self-sufficient unity here, drawing upon the various strengths and talents of individual tribes and races. His dream would die with him at Clontarf on Good Friday, 1014, drowned in blood as Gael and Dane on one side fought Gale and Dane on the other, unable to agree on anything but plunder and vengeance.
To reach Clontarf Brian Boru – dreamer, opportunist, ruthless pragmatist , skilled harper, accomplished scholar, accomplished warrior – had led an army across the midsection of Ireland, drawing additional supporters as he went.
In spite of his efforts he had made to introduce a form of cavalry, most warriors still fought on foot, and barefoot at that. Battle-dress was as individualistic as the men themselves.Some wore simple saffron-dried tunics with woollen cloaks or shaggy mantles. Others had body protection in the form of boiled leather fitted to the torso, or the occasional set of chain links taken from a dead Dane. Weapons also varied. Brian himself had mastered the battle-axe, but short swords and spears and slings and clubs were very much in evidence. Then as now, many thought there was no substitute for a stout blackthorn cudgel.
In 1014, as if anticipating trouble with the always-fractious Leinstermen and their allies among the Danes of Dublin, Brian had fortified Thomond. When it became obvious war was inevitable he drew strongly upon support from what are now counties Clare, Limerick and Tipperary. As his army set forth they carried with them a wealth of supplies from the west in terms of material and weaponry, though most of their food must have come from the countryside through which they passed.
It is doubtful if many of the smallholders who watched Brian’s army march by had any idea of the issues at stake. Most of the army itself did not. They set out singing marching songs, excited by the opportunities for glory and plunder which battle always provided. Some were undoubtedly frightened, shivering in their cloaks before they were long underway, but unwilling to admit it to their fellows. The indomitable will of the aged but awesome man who led them kept them from deserting, however. Brian Boru was always able to communicate enough of his dream to make men follow him, even against impossible odds. Even against the thousand ships which, it was rumoured, would be sailing into Dublin bay to stand against him. Norse and Dane – white foreigners and black foreigners, as they were called- marched in Brian Boru’s army to some extent. They had become Irish.
But against them were arrayed the Leinstermen and their own Scandinavian allies, not only the ships from abroad but the well-fortified city of Dublin itself, ruled by Sitric, the son of Brian Boru’s former wife Gormalaith. When Brian Boru set the troublemaking Gormlaith aside he made of her an enemy who would change the history of Ireland. Gormlaith’s anger called in the armies who intended to overthrow and destroy Brian Boru. Knowing this, knowing also that as a man of seventy-three he might not survive this battle, even if his followers allowed him to fight personally as he had done the preceding year, Brian marched on.
As his armies passed through the rich central plain of Ireland clans who supported them supplied them with dried meat, cheeses, bread – the last of the so-called ‘winter food’. Footsoldiers carried skins of Danish beer, the most popular drink of the common man, but would gladly settle for a cup of buttermilk from a friendly farmer. At night in his leather tent the Ard Rí dined on more sumptuous fare, for he was known for his taste for luxury. Irish stew in 1014 did not contain the now-ubiquitous potato, but consisted of mutton, hare, waterfowl, eel, prawns, mussels, barley, onions and root vegetables, kale seaweeds and watercress, and the sediment, or lees, of red wine. As Ard Rí, Brian Boru undoubtedly flavoured his with imported cinnamon.
He and his fellow chieftains were richly attired in pleated shirts of bleached linen, vests embroidered with gold thread, form fitting tunics and trews, and crested helmets. Their shields boasted bronze bosses and were swagged with elegant chains. Their spear-heads glittered atop shafts of white hazel. The Ireland they knew was wealthy and worth fighting for.
An important factor in determining the outcome of the battle would be whether Malachy Mór, whom Brian had overthrown to become Ard Rí. would stand with Brian’s forces as he had in the past. Their alliance was fragile. Both had wanted the High Kingship; both had once been married to the same woman, Gormlaith of Leinster. But without the help of Malachy and his Meathmen Brian would be dangerously outnumbered.
All of these thoughts must have run through the old King’s head as he and his armies advanced on Dublin, their ranks swelled by welcome additions from Connacht, which had proved a staunch ally. But whatever unity Brian had forged among those who considered themselves Irish was about to undergo its most severe test against rebellious Maelmors of Leinster and his foreign allies. Should Brian win, he intended to establish a stable dynasty to replace the strife-fraught custom of alternate kingship and fragmented leadership. Ireland could then present a unified face and proven military might to the rest of the world. It would no longer appear a temptingly easy target for plunder by foreign kings. Ireland could anticipate a similar future to that which Charlemagne had won for his land.
The tapestry of tribes who followed Brian Boru were not thinking in these terms, of course. They had neither his education nor his vision. They simply prayed to God for victory and dreamed of the loot they would take as their share of the spoils. So they marched through that muddy, rainy spring, to converge upon Clontarf. Good Friday, 1014.
– Kind thanks to the Author for her permission to reproduce this article