The following is an extract from A. M. Sullivan’s Story of Ireland (1883) recounting the Irish victory at Clontarf on this day in 1014.
The High King of Ireland Brian Boru soon became fully aware of the scheme at which the Danes all over Europe were labouring, 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 sum — moning every resource for the crisis. Towards the close of March, Brian’s arrangements being completed, he gave the order for a simultaneous march to Kilmainham, 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 valour for whatever it lacked in numbers.
The lords of all the southern half of the kingdom — the lords of Decies, Inchiquin, Fermoy, Corca-Baiskin, Kinalmeaky, and Kerry — and the lords of Hy-Manie and Hi-Fiachra in Connacht, we are told, hastened to Brian’s standard. O’More and O’Nolan of Leinster, and Donald, Steward of Marr, 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. 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 Brodur, 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 Glasnevin, crossed the Tolka at the point where the Botanical Gardens now stand, and faced his line of battle southward towards where the enemy were encamped upon the shore. Meantime, becoming aware that Maelmorra, 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 despatched 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 Maelmorra 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, Brodur, having consulted one of the Danish pagan oracles, was told that if he gave battle upon the Friday, Brian would fall.
With early dawn the next day, Good Friday, 23rd of April, 1014, all was bustle in both camps. The Danish army, facing inland, northwards or north-east, stretched along the shore of Dublin Bay; its left flank touching and protected by the city of Dublin, its centre being about the spot where Clontarf castle now stands, and its right wing resting on Dollymount. The Irish army, facing southwards, had its right on Drumcondra, its centre 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 all being ready for the signal of battle,
Brian himself, mounted on a richly-caparisoned charger, rode through the Irish lines, as all the records are careful to tell us, “with his sword in one hand, and a crucifix in the other”; exhorting the troops to remember the momentous issues that depended upon the fortunes of that day — Religion and Country against Paganism and Bondage. It is said that on this occasion he delivered an address which moved his soldiers, now to tears, and onto the utmost pitch of enthusiasm and resolution.
And we can well imagine the effect, upon an army drain up as they were for the onset of battle in defence of “Faith and Fatherland”, of such a sight and such an appeal — their aged and venerable monarch, “his white hair floating in the wind”, riding through their lines, with the sacred symbol of Redemption borne aloft, and adjuring them, as the chronicles tell us, to ”remember that on this day Christ died for us, on the Mount of Calvary”. Moreover, Brian himself had given them an earnest, such that perhaps a monarch had never given before, of his resolve, that with the fortunes of his country he and his sons and kinsmen all would stand or fall. He brought “his sons and nephews there”, says the historian, who might have added, and even his grandchildren”, and showed that he was prepared to let the existence of his race depend upon the issue of the day”.
We may be sure a circumstance so affecting as this was not lost upon Brian’s soldiers. It gave force to every word of his address. He recounted, we are told, all the barbarities and the sacrileges perpetrated by the invaders in their lawless ravages on Irish soil, the shrines they had plundered, the holy relics they had profaned, the brutal cruelties they had inflicted on unarmed non-combatants — nay, on “the servants of the Altar”. Then, raising the crucifix aloft, he invoked the Omnipotent God to look down upon them that day, and to strengthen their aims in a cause so just and holy. Mr. William Kenealy (now of Kilkenny) is the author of a truly noble poem which gives with all the native vigour and force of the original, this thrilling address:
Stand ye now for Erin’s glory! Stand ye now for Erin’s cause!
Long ye’ve groaned beneath the rigour of the Northmen’s savage laws.
What though brothers league against us? What, though myriads be the foe?
Victory will be more honoured in the myriads’ overthrow.
Proud Connacians! oft we’ve wrangled in our petty feuds of yore;
Now we fight against the robber Dane upon our native shore;
May our hearts unite in friendship, as our blood in one red tide,
While we crush their mail-clad legions, and annihilate their pride!
Brave Eugenians! Erin triumphs in the sight she sees to-day—
Desmond’s homestead all deserted for the muster and the fray!
Cluan’s vale and Galtees’ summit send their bravest and their best—
May such hearts be theirs for ever, for the Freedom of the West!
Chiefs and Kernes of Dalcassia! Brothers of my past career,
Oft, we’ve trodden on the pirate-flag that flaunts before us here;
You remember Inniscattery, how we bounded on the foe.
As the torrent of the mountain bursts upon the plain below!
They have razed our proudest castles—spoiled the Temples of the Lord—
Burnt to dust the sacred relics—put the Peaceful to the sword—
Desecrated all things holy—as they soon may do again,
If their power to-day we smite not—if to-day we be not men!
On this day the God-man suffered—look upon the sacred sign—
May we conquer ‘neath its shadow, as of old did Constantine!
May the heathen tribe of Odin fade before it like a dream,
And the triumph of this glorious day in our future annals gleam!
God of heaven, bless our banner—nerve our sinews for the strife!
Fight we now for all that ‘s holy—for our altars, land, and life—
For red vengeance on the spoiler, whom the blazing temples trace—
For the honour of our maidens and the glory of our race!
Should I fall before the foeman, ‘t is the death I seek to-day;
Should ten thousand daggers pierce me, bear my body not away,
Till this day of days be over—till the field is fought and won—
Then the holy Mass be chaunted, and the funeral rites be done.
Men of Erin! men of Erin! grasp the battle-axe and spear!
Chase these Northern wolves before you like a herd of frightened deer!
Burst their ranks, like bolts from heaven!
Down on the heathen crew, for the glory of the Crucified, and Erin’s glory too!
Who can be astonished that, as he ceased, a shout wild, furious, and deafening, burst from the Irish lines? A cry arose from the soldiers, we are told, demanding instantly to be led against the enemy. The aged monarch now placed himself at the head of his guards, to lead the van of battle; but at this point his sons and all the attendant princes and commanders protested against his attempting, at his advanced age, to take part personally in the conflict; and eventually, after much effort, they succeeded in vailing upon him to retire to his tent and to let the chief command devolve upon his eldest son Morrogh.
“The battle”, says a historian, “then commenced; a spirited, fierce, violent, vengeful, and furious battle; the likeness of which was not to be found at that time”, as the old annals quaintly describe it. It was a conflict of heroes. The chieftains engaged at every point in single combat; and the greater part of them on both sides fell. The impetuosity of the Irish was irresistible, and their battle-axes did fearful execution, every man of the ten hundred mailed warriors of Norway having been made to bite the dust, and it was against them, we are told, that the Dalcassians had been obliged to contend single-handed. The heroic Morrogh performed prodigies of valour throughout the day. Ranks of men fell before him; and, hewing his way to the Danish standard, he cut down two successive bearers of it with his battle-axe. Two Danish leaders, Carolus and Conmael, enraged at this success, rushed on him together, but both fell in rapid succession by his sword.
Twice, Morrogh and some of his chiefs retired to slake their thirst and cool their hands, swollen from the violent use of the sword; and the Danes observing the vigour with which they returned to the conflict, succeeded, by a desperate effort, in cutting off the brook which had refreshed them. Thus the battle raged from an early hour in the morning —innumerable deeds of valour being performed on both sides, and victory appearing still doubtful, until the third or fourth hour in the afternoon, when a fresh and desperate effort was made by the Irish, and the Danes, now almost destitute of leaders, began to waver and give way at every point.
Just at this moment the Norwegian prince, Anrud, encountered Morrogh, who was unable to raise his arms from fatigue, but with the left hand he seized Anrud and hurled him to the earth, and with the other placed the point of his sword on the breast of the prostate Northman, and leaning on it plunged it through his body While stooping, however, for this purpose, Anrud contrived to inflict on him a mortal wound with a dagger, and Morrogh fell in the arms of victory.
According to other accounts, Morrogh was in the act of stooping to relieve an enemy when he received from him his death wound. This disaster had not the effect of turning the fortune of the day, for the Danes and their allies were in a state of utter disorder, and along their whole line had commenced to fly towards the city or to their ships. They plunged into the Tolka at a time, we may conclude, when the river was swollen with the tide, so that great numbers were drowned.
The body of young Turlogh was found after the battle at the weir of Clontarf, with his hands entangled in the hair of a Dane whom he had grappled with in the pursuit. ” But the chief tragedy of the day remains to be related. Brodur, the pirate admiral, who commanded in the point of the Danish lines remotest from the city, seeing the route general, was making his way through some thickets with only a few attendants, when he came upon the tent of Brian Borumha, left at that moment without his guards.
The fierce Norseman rushed in and found the aged monarch at prayer before the crucifix, which he had that morning held up to the view of his troops, and attended only by his page. Yet, Brian had time to seize his arms, and died sword in hand. The Irish accounts say that the king killed Brodur, and was only overcome by numbers; but the Danish version in the Niala Saga is more probable, and in this Brodur is represented as holding up his reeking sword, and crying ‘Let it be proclaimed from man to man that Brian has been slain by Brodur‘. It is on the same authority, that the ferocious pirate was then hemmed in by Brian’s returned guards and captured alive, and that he was hung from a tree, and continued to rage like a beast of prey until all his entrails were torn out — the Irish soldiers thus taking savage vengeance for the death of their king, who but for their own neglect would have been safe”. Such was the victory of Clontarf — one of the most glorious events in the annals of Ireland! It was the final effort of the Danish power to effect the conquest of this country.
Never again was that effort renewed. For a century subsequently the Danes continued to hold some maritime cities in Ireland; but never more did they dream of conquest. That design was overthrown forever on the bloody plain of Clontarf. It was, as the historian called it truly, “a conflict of heroes”. There was no flinching on either side, and on each side fell nearly every commander of note who had entered the battle.
The list of the dead is a roll of nobility, Danish and Irish ; amongst the dead being the brave Caledonian chiefs, the great Stewards of Mar and Lennox, who had come from distant Alba to fight on the Irish side that day! But direst disaster of all — most woful in its ulterior results affecting the fate and fortunes of Ireland — was the slaughter of the reigning family: Brian himself, Morrogh, his eldest son and destined successor, and his grandson, “the youthful Torlagh”, eldest child of Morrogh — three generations cut down in the one day upon the same field of battle. “The fame of the event went out through all nations. The chronicles of Wales, of Scotland, and of Man; the annals of Ademar and Marianus; the sagas of Denmark and the Isles, all record the event. The Norse settlers in Caithness saw terrific visions of Valhalla ‘the day after the battle’.
The annals state that Brian and Morrogh both lived to receive the last sacraments of the Church, and that their remains were conveyed by the monks to Swords (near Dublin), and thence to Armagh by the Archbishop; and that their obsequies were celebrated for twelve days and nights with great splendour by the clergy of Armagh; after which the body of Brian was deposited in a stone coffin on the north side of the high altar in the cathedral, the body of his son being interred on the south side of the same church. The remains of Turlogh and several of the other chieftains were buried in the old churchyard of Kilmainham, where the shaft of an Irish cross still marks the spot.