The Battle of Clontarf WAS a War Between the Irish and Vikings After All

The Battle of Clontarf WAS a War Between the Irish and Vikings After All


The events of the Battle of Clontarf have been questioned recently by some historians, who have made the case that it was an Irish civil war, rather than a war of the Irish versus the Vikings. But a new study seems to have the definitive answer.

The Vikings (or Norsemen) began carrying out raids on Gaelic Ireland in the late eighth century, and over the following few decades they founded a number of settlements along the coast. During the tenth century Viking Dublin developed into the Kingdom of Dublin — a thriving town and a large area of the surrounding countryside, whose rulers also controlled extensive territories in the Irish Sea.

Soon enough the Irish natives wanted control of their lands back. The Battle of Clontarf took place on 23 April 1014. It pitted the forces of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, against a Norse-Irish alliance comprising the forces of Norseman Sigtrygg Silkbeard, King of Dublin, Máel Mórda mac Murchada, King of Leinster, and an external Viking contingent led by Sigurd of Orkney and Brodir of Mann.

The battle lasted from sunrise to sunset, and ended in a disorderly retreat of defeated Viking and Leinster troops. It is estimated that between 7,000 and 10,000 men were killed. Although Brian’s forces were victorious, Brian himself was killed, as well as his son Murchad and his grandson Toirdelbach.

Leinster king Máel Mórda and Viking leaders Sigurd and Brodir were also slain. After the battle, the Vikings of Dublin were reduced to a secondary power.

Map of the larger Irish kingdoms in 1014

The battle was an important event in Irish history and is recorded in both Irish and Norse chronicles. In Ireland, the battle came to be seen as an event that freed the Irish from foreign domination, and Brian was hailed as a national hero.

The new study mentioned above actually confirms that the battle was a Viking vs Irish event. Modern mathematical techniques – similar to those used to analyse social-networking websites – have allowed academics to shed new light on a centuries-old debate surrounding the Viking age in Ireland and the famous battle of Clontarf in 1014.

The widespread view among the public since the event itself is that the battle was the climax of a war between the Irish and Vikings, and Irish victory finally broke Viking power in Ireland. However, revisionist historians have long since challenged this view believing, instead, it was a conflict between opposing Irish sides with Munster and its allies victorious over Leinster and Dublin, and Viking warriors on each side.

Battle of Clontarf, oil on canvas painting by Hugh Frazer, 1826

The debate about the conflict has lasted at least 250 years and medieval texts have been used by both sides to support their cases. But researchers at Coventry, Oxford and Sheffield Universities have analysed the most extensive of these medieval texts using a mathematical approach similar to that used to analyse the connections between people on social networking websites, such as Facebook.

Their findings, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, support the long-standing popular view that the Battle of Clontarf was the climax of a war mainly between the Irish and Vikings. This is contrary to the revisionist view that it was an Irish civil war.

To perform the study, the academics analysed how all the Irish and Viking characters in the text fit together in a network, monitoring whether the interactions between them were benign or hostile. They developed a mathematical measure to quantify whether hostility in the network mainly connected Irish to Irish or Irish to Vikings.

Viking re-enactors came from all over the world to take part in the Battle of Clontarf millennium commemoration in Dublin in 2014.

They then calculated the difference between the measure of hostilities between each type of character (Irish and Viking) and what would have been hostile interactions in the network, indiscriminate of whether characters were Irish or Viking. And the results are in, suggesting that the texts mainly describe an Irish against Viking conflict.

Lead author Professor Ralph Kenna, a theoretical physicist at Coventry University, said,”Every school child in Ireland is taught about the battle of Clontarf; it’s an iconic event in our country’s history. We’ve used network science to give a greater understanding of medieval accounts and to give new insight into the relationships and hostilities from this period, a topic that has been argued about for hundreds of years. The medieval composer of the text certainly did not think in terms of social networks but, in recording a cast of hundreds with well over a thousand connections between them, he imprinted them into the narrative. This is why the networks approach delivers unique new insights; it extracts an unintended message. The paper goes beyond previous works in that it generates a new quantitative element to the complexity and conflicts of a long-standing debate about the Viking age in Ireland.”

In 1052, Diarmait mac Máel na mBó, King of Leinster, captured Dublin, for the first time asserting Irish overlordship over the Norse of Ireland. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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