Saturday, December 06, 2014

Book Review: Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf

The year 2014 sits within the decade of centenaries in Irish history. This year, it's one hundred years since the start of World War One. Yet it also stands as another significant anniversary, being one thousand years since the death of the Irish warrior king, Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf. Being vaguely aware of that period of history, and of Brian Boru himself (who is buried at St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh), I read Sean Duffy's book on Brian Boru and the BAttle of Clontarf.

The book was made possible through the publication of electronic texts of the primary source material of early Celtic writing. Duffy's view is that this explosion has led to 'a sober or trustworthy history of Ireland freed of old romantic notions,' quoting Todd. The material also helps to explain why Brian Boru is the best known of the fifty or so high kings of ancient Ireland. The aim of the book is to try to explain why really happened at Clontarf, although it's not as simple as is often thought. Indeed, as Duffy admits, 'what follows is a long-winded attempt at an answer.'

In condensed form, Duffy summarises it as such:

It is a straightforward political narrative. It situates Brian in the politics of Viking Age Ireland. It tells the story of the rise from relative obscurity of his North Munster dynasty of Dal Cais, of his own rapid ascent to national dominance and of the political transformation he wrought. It charts the interprovincial struggle for supremacy that fed into his final great battle on Good Friday, 1014, in which he lost his life. And it examines the international context - the Second Viking Age - in which Clontarf was fought, when England was being conquered by the Danes under the family of King Knut, and the Norse of Dublin made their fatal gamble on breaking free from Brian's overlordship. It examines the evidence to see what was at stake in 1014 and how it can be that Brian was victorious at Clontarf yet lost his own life.

And based on that summary, the book does exactly what it says on the tin. It's very thorough, with lots of detail that sometimes lost me, but the overall gist of the book was clearly explained and expanded. There was some interesting details that I'd like to share.

The first is the reminder that the Celtic-speaking people emerging as the Irish arrived here only a few hundred years before the birth of Christ. Yet they have left no written record, until the Ogham lines and notches on standing stones. Even the 'native' Irish are immigrants and planters, just like the rest of us!

There was also the helpful reminder that Scotland means the land of the Scotti (that is, the Irish). So Columba, founding Iona, was still in Irish territory, across the narrow sea from the mainland of Ireland.

Duffy points out that understanding the politics of medieval Ireland, and especially the kings and kingship is critical, complex and controversial. The theory and practice of kingship wasn't static, with change throughout the centuries, sometimes quicker, sometimes slower. Kings reigned over political communities which saw themselves as a 'tuath' - at least a hundred on the island at various times! He also asserts that the law tracts don't envisage any king higher than the provincial king, although that doesn't mean it didn't happen in practice. A united Ireland seems to be a late concept, partially inaugurated by Boru. Prior to him, the high-kingship wasn't hereditary, but passed between clans, kingdoms and provinces.

After a long introduction in which the political and cultural background is expounded, Duffy gets to the main subject - Brian Boru and the lead up to Clontarf. There's an amazing incident where Brian Boru makes a gift of gold to the abbot of Armagh, a mutually beneficial and convenient act, cementing Armagh as the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, and confirming Boru as high king.

IN regards to the battle of Clontarf itself, it appears that it's hard to distinguish fact from legend, with various later sources aserting the enemy being either the Leinstermen (in opposition to Brian's Munstermen), or the Norse of Dublin. Was Brian Boru fighting as the leader of the Irish against the invading foreigners? Or was it a political struggle between clans and kingdoms? The annals and annalists pursue their own agendas. But through it all, Duffy brings clarity.

All in all, it's a good book. It's very detailed, with lots of research. However, there are also a lot of unpronouncable Irish names of people and places, which made it hard to read at times! The book has given me a better sense of a key figure in Irish history, in this his millenium year. Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf is available for Kindle from Amazon.

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