Deeds have been done here whereof the world re-echoed. Yonder, in the long ago, when Tomar’s Wood rose dark and rustling against the plain of Clontarf, and the Danish walls of Dublin loomed south of the river Liffey, the ravens fed on the slain and the setting sun lighted lakes of crimson. There King Brian, your ancestor and mine, broke the spears of the North. From all lands they came, and from the isles of the sea; they came in gleaming mail and their horned helmets cast long shadows across the land. Their dragon-prows thronged the waves and the sound of their oars was as the beat of a storm.
Robert E. Howard, “The Cairn on the Headland”
The battle of Clontarf was fought a thousand years ago now – a thousand years by precise count. It was the material of legend, and legend is what it became. The Irish leader, the land’s greatest king, Brian Boru, was past seventy by then and took no active part in the fighting, though his son and grandson did. There were heroes, and traitors, and the wicked, scheming, wanton (but spectacularly beautiful) woman every legend must have – Gormlaith, the much-married former wife of King Brian and mother of his enemy, Sigtrygg Silkbeard, King of Dublin. There was a Viking chief with a literally supernatural reputation, Brodir of the Isle of Man — Brodir the Warlock. A former Christian, he had abjured that religion and turned back to the heathen gods. He possessed a mail shirt no blade or spear could pierce, and wore his black hair so long he could tuck it into his belt.
His brother Ospak, though a heathen too, had become so disgusted with Brodir that he fought on King Brian’s side, just as Maelmordha, King of Leinster, fought with Sigtrygg against Brian. It was hardly an unadorned matter of Irish against Danes, and one of Brian’s allies, Malachi of Meath (another man to whom Gormlaith had been married) had formerly been Brian’s enemy for years. Brian had doubts concerning him, but wasn’t in a position to be choosy.
Complicated? That’s just the simplified outline.
Robert E. Howard was fascinated by Clontarf. One of his stories, written both with and without a supernatural element (as “The Grey God Passes” and “Spears of Clontarf”) features his grim Dalcassian warrior, Turlogh Dubh O’Brien, in both. Turlogh, as any REH aficionado knows, was wild, moody, and hated the Danes, who had ravaged his country for three hundred years, with a passion amounting to madness. “I hate your breed as I hate Satan!” he snarls in “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth,” “The screams of a thousand ravished girls are ringing in my ears night and day! Would all the north had a single breast for this axe to cleave!”
“The Cairn on the Headland,” set in the modern world, looks back to the battle of Clontarf, and even has the narrator dreaming of a former life as an Irish kern who fought there. In Howard’s vision, the power of the Vikings was finally broken at Clontarf, and terrible Odin laid to rest – until the touch of the sacred holly plant should revive him. These are powerful stories, even for Robert E. Howard, and the real event on which he bases them was – never mind the debunkers – mighty enough to ring down the centuries.
For one thing it saw the triumph, and death, of Ireland’s greatest king. For another, it really did settle who would be the masters of Ireland, the Vikings or the Irish. For a third, it was the fiercest, most bloody fight even Ireland had known. For a fourth, it had the natural stuff of heroic legend in it, from the single combat which began the fighting (and resulted in the death of both opponents) to the red aftermath when Brian Boru was cut down in his tent and swift retribution came to his killers. For a fifth, it not only passed into Irish history, legend and song, it found a place in two chapters (155-56) of one of the finest Icelandic sagas, The Burning of Njal.
Does anyone draw a blank at the name of Brian Boru? Not in Ireland, friends. Brian was born in 940 or 941 A.D., the youngest of twelve brothers, all but two of whom were eventually killed in battle. These were not peaceful times. When Brian’s brother Mahon became king of Munster and made a treaty with Ivar, the Viking king of Limerick, Brian took to the mountains in disgust and fought them back and forth in a protracted guerrilla war. He eventually beat them decisively at Sulcheid in 968 A.D., and pursued them right back to Limerick. Finding large numbers of Irish children enslaved there made Brian so furious that he had three thousand Vikings put to the sword as punishment.
He wasn’t just a fighting death-machine. Literate in both Latin and Greek, he played a good game of chess and was a noted harper. His diplomatic and negotiating skills were of a high order. He was married four times, his third wife being the beautiful, unprincipled Gormlaith (Kormlada to the Vikings) and is said to have had about thirty concubines.
Gormlaith had been married to Aulaf, the Viking king of Dublin, long before the battle of Clontarf. Her son by Aulaf was Sigtrygg Silkbeard, Brian’s chief enemy. Fifty and still beautiful as the battle loomed, she was playing Jarl Sigurd of the Orkneys against the dangerous Brodir with promises of marriage to both, with her son’s connivance. “You were born to lure men to their doom,” Brodir rages in “Spears of Clontarf,” and the chief Dunlang O’Hartigan comments, “Strange it is that a woman so fair of form and countenance should have the soul of a devil.” Certainly everybody loves a comely and treacherous she-cat in a story, and often enough the characterization is unfair (as with Lucrezia Borgia) but in Gormlaith’s case it seems to be true enough. Her conspiracies against Brian with her son and brother had been the reason Brian divorced her.