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Posted on Oct 9, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

The Struggle for Ireland: The Battle of Clontarf, 1014 AD

By Nicky Nielsen

Even without Malachi’s contingent of Meath soldiers, Brian’s army still mustered some 7000 men. As he approached Dublin he was informed that Brodir and Sigurd had departed in their ships, leaving Dublin completely defenseless. Hardened by this news, the army drove on towards Dublin.
But the retreat of Brodir and Sigurd was of course only a clever ruse, designed by the leaders to trick the Irish into letting down their guard. In reality they had only sailed just out of sight where they waited until the 26th of April, Good Friday, 1014. By that time the Irish had come within range of Dublin.

The Vikings knew that the pious Brian would be very reluctant to do battle on such a holy day as Good Friday and that was exactly why they chose to hold the battle until that day.


As dawn broke on the morning of the 26th of April the Vikings beached their longboats a mile and a half from Dublin and went ashore to face Brian’s army. The Irish quickly realized that they had been tricked and, reluctant as Brian was, he rode out in front of his troops to do battle holding a sword in his right hand and a crucifix in his left. After that he retreated to the rear of the army leaving his son and allied chieftains in command while he prayed to the successful outcome of the battle. But before retreating he made a short speech to his soldiers. The Cogadh has preserved this speech:

The great God has at length looked down upon our sufferings, and imbued you with the power and the courage this day to destroy forever the tyranny of the Danes, and thus to punish them for their innumerable crimes and sacrileges by the avenging power of the sword. Was it not on this day that Christ himself suffered for you? (i)

As the forces faced each other in the early morning light, the sun twinkling on helmets and spears, various warriors and chieftains would confidently walk out into the no-mans-land between the armies and shout challenges to various chieftains and warriors on the other side. So as the armies moved slowly towards each other, a number of duels were fought in the closing gap between the Irish and the Vikings.

As the armies clashed together on the battlefield the chieftains and kings from both sides attempted to seek out their counterparts among the enemy, so that they could settle old scores or family feuds. The Viking chieftain Brodir of Man was nearly killed in such a duel with Wolf the Quarrelsome and only managed to escape by throwing away his weapons and taking cover in the nearby forest.

From the walls of Dublin, King Sigtrygg watched his allies struggle while he himself was surrounded by 1000 body-guards who made sure that he was safe. He did not intervene in the battle at any time – perhaps he wished to see which army would prevail before interfering in the battle.

Brodir of Man when he fled had left his men in the middle of the fray without a leader. Now they were broken and routed by the Irish chieftain Murchad and driven back to their ships.

As Brodir’s men fled they left their allies, the soldiers from Leinster under the command of Mael Mordar, isolated and they soon fell prey to the Munster men who butchered them mercilessly. Mael Mordar himself was killed in a fight with a Munster chieftain who died shortly after killing Mordar from the wounds the dead Leinster-man had inflicted upon him.

Murchad who had fought so valiantly against the Vikings under the command of Brodir of Man was assaulted by Prince Eric of Denmark, after a brief fight Eric was flung to the ground by Murchad and killed, the victorious Murchad, however, was exhausted and soon succumb to another Viking assailant and was killed.

When the Danish Dublin Vikings saw friends and allies driven of the field, they turned tail and fled back towards Dublin. Only one bridge, the DubhGall’s Bridge, led into Dublin and as the fleeing Vikings attempted to cross it, Malachi finally decided to join in the battle. He charged with his fresh troops into the flank of the Vikings attempting to cross the bridge and they were effectively massacred.

This defeat left only the Orkney Vikings and the Icelandic Vikings under chieftain Thorstein on the battlefield. They realized that the day was lost but when they turned around to retreat back to their ships, they saw that the tide had cut them off from their only way to escape.

As the Vikings made one last stand on the beach Malachi charged them down and drove them into the waves where many either drowned or were cut down by Irish swords or arrows.

Thorstein attempted to flee but stopped dead in his tracks to tie a shoelace. He was immediately caught by the Irish. When they asked him why he didn’t flee he answered: “Because I can’t get home tonight, since I am at home out in Iceland.” (ii) Brian Boru let the Viking chieftain live and he later returned to his home in Iceland.

The Irish had won a major victory but what they didn’t know was that the Vikings hadn’t given up yet. Brodir of Man, who had fled, had lingered in the forest with some of his best men. Suddenly he realized that the Irish, so busy with butchering his allies, the Orkney Vikings on the beach, had left Brian Boru unguarded. Brodir and his men charged out of the forest and after a short fight, Brodir decapitated Brian Boru, then he ran for it yelling: “Now let man tell man that Brodir felled Brian!” (iii) He was quickly taken a captive and suffered a long and painful death at the hand of the furious Irishmen. According to one source Wolfe the Quarrelsome: "[c]ut open [Brodir’s] belly and led him round and round the trunk of a tree, and he did not die before [his entrails] were all drawn out of him." (iv)

The Battle of Clontarf was won by the Irish but at a great cost. As much as 4000 Irishmen were killed and also their King Brian Boru and most of their chieftains died. The Vikings and their allies had suffered as well, out of 8000 warriors, 6000 were killed along with every single Viking chieftain, apart from Sigtrygg Silkbeard (and Thorstein the Icelander, who was spared by the Irish) who had wisely chosen not to assist his allies. He had stayed inside Dublin Castle and refused to come out when the battle was over. Too tired to lay siege to the castle, the Irish army left Dublin in the hands of the Vikings and returned home.

However, one can claim that the battle was lost by both sides; the Vikings lost foothold in Ireland and were confined to raiding England and Scotland. The Irish not only lost their High king but also every single man who had been expected to succeed him. The Battle of Clontarf was the end of the Old Ireland, there would never again be a High king with the same powers as Brian Boru. The throne was occupied by Malachi and Donnchad but Donnchad was deposed in the 1050’s and civil war broke out over the throne. It was a civil war that did not end until the Norman Invasion some 100 years later.

Further Reading

Cusack C. F. The Illustrated History of Ireland. New York: Crescent, 1987

Gore, Terry L. Neglected Heroes – Leadership and War in the Early Medieval Period. London: Praeger, 1995

End Notes

i) Cusack C. F. The Illustrated History of Ireland. New York: Crescent, 1987, p. 215.
ii) The Story of Burnt Njal, Translated by Sir George W. Dasent. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1971
iii) ibid
iv) ibid

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  1. You are RUBBISH

  2. It’s nice to see someone covering ireland in that period. And I appreciated the sources are few and far between for the era.

    But you left so much out and go so many things wrong…

  3. I too liked the idea of covering Ireland during this time, but this article did seem to have so many inaccuracies based on the few sources that we have…. I hope I am not being offensive, but I was wondering what your intentions were in trying to cover this area and time frame…..