Before his tent, the firelight playing on his white beard and glinting from his undimmed eagle eyes, sat the great king Brian Boru among his chiefs. The king was old – seventy-three winters had passed over his lion-like head – long years crammed with fierce wars and bloody intrigues. Yet his back was straight, his arm unwithered, his voice deep and resonant. His chiefs stood about him, tall proud warriors with war-hardened hands and eyes whetted by the sun and the winds and the high places. Tigerish princes in their rich tunics, green girdles, leathern sandals and saffron mantles caught with great golden brooches.
Robert E. Howard, “Spears of Clontarf”
The sun rose on the terrible dawn of a terrible day. It would set on a more terrible dusk. Two armies faced each other, more than twenty thousand warriors on each side. The High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, had marched against Dublin, then a Viking town, with the axe-men of his own Dalcassian tribe and the forces of Malachi, king of Meath, a former enemy and doubtful present ally. A long roster of other Irish chiefs supported him, and even a noted Viking warrior from man, Ospak, with – according to Njal’s Saga– ten shiploads of followers. Sigtrygg, king of Dublin, with his Irish mother and uncle, opposed Brian. Their allies included the king of Denmark’s sons with 12,000 followers, Jarl Sigurd of the Orkneys, and Ospak’s redoubtable brother Brodir – both of whom had been promised the hand of Sigtrygg’s mother Gormlaith for their aid.
Sinister supernatural portents galore had preceded this day. Sigurd possessed a great banner bearing a raven, the bird of Odin. It was said to bring victory to the host that displayed it, but every man who carried the banner met death. Brodir, a warlock, had taken omens which indicated that King Brian would win if he fought on Good Friday, but also die, while if the two hosts fought on any other day, the Vikings would be annihilated.
The Njal’s Saga says a man named Daurrod in Caithness had seen the Norns weaving fate on a grisly loom. Within a phantom bower, they worked and sang remorselessly. Daurrod remembered their chant and repeated it later.
This woof is woven
With entrails of men,
This warp is hard-weighted
With heads of the slain;
For spindles we use
Our loom iron-bound
And arrows for reels.
With swords for our shuttles
This war-woof we work …
Mind, maidens, we spare not
One life in the fray!
Brand Gneisti’s son in the Faroe Isles saw a similar vision.
With so many supernatural portents about, it was all but certain Odin himself would appear at the battle. In Howard’s stories, “The Grey God Passes” and “The Cairn on the Headland,” he does, and also before. Conn the thrall meets him on the Irish shore and hears the prophetic words, “Soon you shall witness the passing of kings … and of more than kings.” Conn also sees the Valkyries riding through the sky. Odin later appears in Dublin Castle. In “The Cairn on the Headland” Howard has Odin, “the fiendish spirit of ice and frost and darkness” adopting human form to enter the battle on the Viking side.
Sigtrygg Silkbeard stayed within Dublin during the battle, while his son commanded the extreme left of the host. Beside him were Irish rebels from Leinster, under Maelmordha their king, Sigtrygg’s uncle. Jarl Sigurd of the Orkneys commanded the Viking center. On the right were Brodir of Man’s hardened veterans, about two thousand of them. At least that’s how modern assessments describe the battle array. REH set it out rather differently, with the Viking host “stretching in a wide crescent from Dubhgall’s bridge to the narrow river Tolka which cuts the plain of Clontarf.” The foreign Northmen, the Vikings (presumably the strong force sent by the Danish king) had the centre, “with Sigurd and the grim Broder.” The fierce Danes of Dublin flanked them on one side, “on the other flank the Irish of Leinster with their king Mailmora.”
REH describes the Irish formations as being led by the Dalcassians, “big rangy men in their saffron tunics, with a round buckler of steel-braced yew wood on the left arm and the right hand gripping the dreaded Dalcassian axe against which no armour could stand. This axe differed greatly from the heavy two-handed weapon of the Danes; the Irish wielded it with one hand, the thumb stretched along the haft to guide the blow, and they had attained a skill at axe-fighting never before or since equalled.”
Brian Boru’s eldest son Murrogh commanded them, described by REH as “tall, broad-shouldered, mightily muscled, with wide blue eyes that were never placid.” The chief Dunlang O’Hartigan in the armour that was his lover’s gift went on one side of Prince Murrogh, and on the other the two Turloghs – Murrogh’s fifteen-year-old son, and his cousin Black Turlogh, protagonist of “The Dark Man” and “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.”
Further, according to REH, behind the Dalcassians came Scots under Lennox and Donald of Mar, and the men of South Munster led by Meathla O’Faelan. The third division comprised the men of Connacht, wildest of the lot, “shock-headed and ferocious, naked but for their wolfskins, with their chiefs O’Kelly and O’Hyne.”
Howard simplified for the sake of making the story move. He didn’t mention Brodir’s brother Ospak, who fought on Brian’s side because he admired the Irish king and had fallen out with Brodir. Ospak was noted for wisdom (according to Njal’s Saga) and led about a thousand mailed Manx Vikings on the Irish right. Also, it appears that the fifteen-year-old Turlogh, Murrogh’s son, was actually on the extreme left with his great-uncle Cuduiligh, at the head of 1500 Dalcassians. And the doubtful, reluctant force from Meath under King Malachi had been stationed in reserve, on the right, some hundreds of yards to the rear.The king rode before his assembled host on a white horse and delivered a rousing speech. “Long have the men of Ireland groaned under the tyranny of these seafaring pirates! The murderers of your kings and chieftains, plunderers of your fortresses! Profane destroyers of the churches and monasteries of God! Who have trampled upon and committed to the flames the relics of the saints! You know that the Danes are strangers to religion and humanity; they are inflamed with the desire of violating the fairest daughters of this land of beauty, and enriching themselves with the spoils of sacrilege and plunder. The barbarians have impiously fixed, for their struggle to enslave us, upon the very day on which the Redeemer of the world was crucified. Victory they shall not have! From such brave soldiers as you they can never wrest it … onward, then, for your country and your sacred altars!”
He was unwilling to retire to his tent, despite his age and would have remained close to the battle, but his chieftains and advisors vehemently urged him to remain at the rear, well-guarded, and in the end he yielded.
The battle began with a ferocious single combat that set the pattern for everything to follow. “Spears of Clontarf” says it took place between Platt of Denmark and the Scottish steward, Donald of Mar. The Dane roared, “Where are you, Donald, or do you skulk from the fray?” and his old foe answered, “I am here, rogue!” The fight did not last long. They came together like tigers, and each gave the other a mortal wound. They died twisting their swords in each other’s bodies and gripping each other by the hair.
“And then were struck the first blows of a battle such as the world was never to see again. Here were no maneuvers of strategy, no charges of cavalry, no flight of arrows. There forty thousand men fought on foot, hand to hand, slaying and dying in one mad red chaos.”
Maelmordha’s Leinstermen engaged with the Munster clans and forced them back. Sigurd’s Orkney Vikings pressed them even harder, advancing behind the charmed raven banner. REH says that “Rane Asgrimm’s son” held it first, and was killed by Prince Murrogh. Then “Thorleif Hordi” picked it up, but was slain immediately by Black Turlogh, “eyes glaring.” “The Cairn on the Headland” describes Odin himself as appearing in mortal form on the battlefield, mowing men like a harvest. Where he was present, the Vikings prevailed, but he could not be everywhere.
Njal’s Saga says that Clontarf was “a very hard fight” and that Brodir the Warlock “felled all the foremost that stood there, but no steel would bite on his mail.” Then he came face to face with a warrior named Wolf the Quarrelsome, who “thrust at him thrice so hard that Brodir fell before him at each thrust, and was well-nigh not getting on his feet again,” but when he did manage to rise, he fled into Tomar’s Wood to escape.
Brodir would not have run from just anybody. I’ve hypothesized elsewhere that “Wolf the Quarrelsome” was an alias by which Black Turlogh became known to the Danes when he fought against them in England. By then he was an outcast, accused by a jealous cousin of conspiring with the Danes – Turlogh Dubh of all men!
“Spears of Clontarf”describes Prince Murrough as “streaming blood from gashes on his limbs” but wielding a heavy sword in each hand, and striving always to reach Jarl Sigurd, but never quite succeeding. Glancing around him, seeing his people hard pressed and the Meathmen still hanging back, he urged Turlogh to leave the fray and take a message to Malachi. “Bid him charge, in God’s name!”
“But the frenzy of slaughter was on Black Turlogh; froth was on his lips and his eyes were those of a madman.
“‘The Devil eat Malachi!’ he snarled, splitting a Dane’s skull with a stroke like the slash of a tiger’s paw. “Here is the sword-feast before us!’”
Murrogh sent another man, who got the shocking answer, “It is not time … I will charge … when the time comes.” And Murrogh, hearing that, roared “Hell to his soul! We are betrayed! Then let us charge and die!”
According to “The Cairn on the Headland,” he encountered the tall grey man, Odin in human form, and was killed by the northern war-god. Whether Odin slew him, or the Norwegian prince Anrad the Berserk, who has also been named as Murrogh’s killer, Brian’s eldest son and heir-presumptive died. Having taken human form to inspire his worshippers, though, Odin was vulnerable, and in Howard’s story he received a mortal stroke from a spear with a cross carved in the haft. He fell and lay dying at the outskirts of the battle.
The raven banner of Orkney fell yet again. Sigurd shouted, “Thorstein, take up the banner!” Thorstein refused, and when Sigurd ordered Hrafn the Red to take it, Hrafn yelled back, “Bear your own curse!” And Sigurd did. He concealed it by wrapping it around his body under his cloak, in hopes of avoiding a fatal outcome that way, but fate was not to be deceived. Sigurd dropped slain, like the others who had carried the banner. Malachi, watching, torn in two, suddenly abandoned doubts and plots. He had schemed to stand aside while both hosts destroyed each other, then seize Ireland and its High Kingship. “But the blood in his veins cried out against him and would not be stilled.”
He led his Meathmen, still fresh, in a wild charge against the Dublin forces, and so turned the scales completely. The Vikings began running for the city’s gates, while the Orkney Vikings, their jarl dead, retreated to their ships. The Irish had won.
The sea is grey in the death of day,
Behind me lifts the night.
I’ll flee no more from the ancient shore
Where first I saw the light.
My castles rust in crimson dust
Red ruin tossed in the drift
But the sea is grey, and the wolf’s at bay,
And the ravens circle swift.
Come from the mists of the Northern Sea
Where the smoke-blue hazes melt.
Your dead shall lie where here I die,
The last unconquered Celt.
Read Part One, Part Three