Battle of Clontarf - An Interesting History That Might Surprise You

15 Apr 2014

Many people might be surprised to hear that Clontarf is not mentioned in the early annal-accounts of the battle. The earliest certain reference to Clontarf seems to survive in a list of the kings of Munster, preserved in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster, which states that Brian was killed in ‘the Battle of Clontarf Weir (Cath Corad Cluana Tarb)’.

Thus the battle was contested in the immediate environs of this weir. Some think it was a salmon weir on the River Tolka near Ballybough Bridge. This, however, is not in Clontarf as such. It is possible therefore that the weir was not a barrier across the Tolka but was similar to the ancient estuarine fishtraps found for instance in the Shannon Estuary and Strangford Lough, and one could visualize one of these along the tidal shoreline at Clontarf and between it and Clontarf Island (which survived until the nineteenth century and now forms part of Fairview Park). This is corroborated by the account elsewhere in the Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh of the death of Brian’s 15-year-old grandson Tairdelbach, who ‘went after the Foreigners into the sea, when the rushing tide wave struck him a blow against the weir of Clontarf (im carrid Cluana Tarb), and so he was drowned’.

The Cogadh asserts that, having reached Dublin, Brian’s forces plundered Fine Gall, north of the Liffey, and when the Foreigners of Dublin saw the area around Howth set ablaze they came into Mag Elta, the coastal plain to which the Howth peninsula attaches and ‘raised their battle-standards on high’. All the evidence suggests that Brian himself, now in his early 70s, did not take part in the ensuing battle, instead pitching camp out on the Faicthe Átha Cliath, a green area to the west of Dublin often thought to be in the vicinity of Kilmainham.

Meanwhile, the Scandinavian fleet – whose arrival in Dublin is attested to in a variety of sources – was in Dublin Bay, perhaps off the eastern (Fairview) end of Clontarf. These Scandinavians linked up with the Norse of Dublin and the Leinstermen, their vessels having availed of the full tide to make a landing. Battle began at first light and raged all day. But as the tide receded, so it drew the Scandinavia vessels with it and scattered them about the bay. By evening the Norse were compelled to retreat and would have made for the safety of Sitriuc’s fortress at Dublin or a wood that seems to have stood in the other direction (towards Howth) – not, it appears, the famous Caill Tomair (‘Wood of Þórarr’), a tract of oakwood, close to Dublin, and highly prized by the Dubliners – rather a less celebrated grove, apparently to the east of the battle-site. The problem for the enemy forces scattering before Brian’s men was that they could not get to this wood because the incoming tide was between them and it.

Similarly, on the west side of the battlefield, as Brian’s fleeing enemies fled they were slaughtered, only twenty Dubliners, the Cogadh tells us, escaping, ‘and it was at Dubgall’s Bridge the last of these was killed’. We do not know who Dubgall was or where his bridge was, but he may be Dubgall mac Amlaíb, brother of King Sitriuc Silkbeard, who commanded the Dublin forces at Clontarf – Sitriuc himself stayed inside the town to prevent it falling into enemy hands – and perhaps Dubgall is also the man whose estate at Baile Dubgaill gives us Baldoyle. It is sometimes assumed that his was the bridge over the Liffey (not far from the Four Courts) which separated the town of Dublin from its northern suburb of Oxmantown then already beginning to take shape. But a more likely location is a bridge straddling the Tolka at Ballybough (which would fit if Dubgall did indeed give his name to Baldoyle which one reaches to this day by the same route). If this is the case, the Norse needed to reach this bridge and cross over the Tolka to escape to Dublin but the tide was between them and the bridge.

On the modern landscape we can imagine the defeated forces being at the old heart of Clontarf – say, between Castle Avenue and Seaview Avenue/Stiles Road – being pushed downhill towards the sea, and to escape to the bridge they would have to traverse what is now Fairview Strand, except that the incoming tide had submerged it. In the other direction, protection was offered by a wooded area which lay perhaps to the east of Vernon Avenue but the inundation of the area around Oulton Road and Belgrove Road blocked off that route also, and so they had no option presumably but to position themselves with their backs to the sea and make a stand, which proved disastrous for them, many of them drowning as they were beaten back.

From The New Book by Séan Duffy “Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf".

Dublin City Council has funded a new publication “Brian Ború and the Battle of Clontarf” by Séan Duffy, Professor of Medieval History, Trinity College Dublin.

The book, published by Gill and Macmillan, is the culmination of 25 years of research and explores Brian Boru and Clontarf in the broader context of Irish history in the Viking Age and of Ireland’s relationship with the outside world in the Middle Ages. This book will be of great interest to a local as well as an academic audience and its publication is timely in the context of the Battle of Clontarf millennium 2014.

The famous painting of the Battle of Clontarf by Hugh Frazer (featured on the cover of Professor Duffy’s new book) has returned to Ireland after 35 years by agreement between Clontarf Historical Society and its American owner. It is currently on display at The Casino, Marino for the millennium year.