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.
Brian fought and intrigued his way to the High Kingship of Erin. Among other feats, he defeated the Dublin Danes at Glen Mama, captured the King of Leinster, and defeated Sigtrygg Silkbeard many years before Clontarf. He collected tribute from most of Ireland’s lesser kings, hence his sobriquet, “Boru.” But Gormlaith and her brother Maelmordha plotted with Sigtrygg to overthrow Brian. The pair travelled to Denmark to raise Viking allies against him. The Danish king’s sons, Carl Canute and Andreas, returned to Ireland with the schemers. Vikings of northern Ireland also came to Dublin, and some of Brian’s native Irish rivals, among them O’Neills he had supplanted for the High Kingship. Jarl Sigurd of the Orkneys and Brodir the Warlock, among the last great Vikings, joined the alliance.
Brian’s own tribe, the Dal Cais or Dalcassians, masters of axe-fighting, were his staunchest supporters. They included his grandsons, fifteen-year-old Turlogh and his cousin, the other Turlogh, a few years older – REH’s character, Black Turlogh. Unlike most of the fierce warriors Robert Howard created, Black Turlogh is only semi-fictional. He’s based on a real historical O’Brien king of Munster who reigned after Brian’s death, and about whom little is known before the age of forty. REH’s Turlogh Dubh at the time of Clontarf is not yet twenty, but “famed throughout all Erin for his berserk rages and the cunning of his deadly axe-play.” The other Irish warriors include Murrogh, Brian’s eldest son, and “Meathla O’Faelan, prince of Desmond.” Celts from Scotland had also crossed the water in support of the Irish cause – “the great stewards,” Lennox, and Donald of Mar. Other Irish chiefs include Dunlang O’Hartigan, doomed to die, O’Hyne, O’Kelly, and the untrustworthy King Malachi of Meath.
There were about sixteen thousand Danes at the battle, as well as Irish of Leinster under Gormlaith’s brother; twenty thousand in all. Brian Boru had thirty thousand fighting men, probably, though most were less well equipped than the Vikings. Many were the “kerns,” lightly armed skirmishers who used javelins to throw in a volley before they came to close-quarter fighting, and in REH’s words, “Hauberks they had none … but the tunics of warrior and chief alike had been woven with such skill and steeped in vinegar [that] their remarkable toughness afforded some protection against sword and arrow.” Brian had a thousand Viking mercenaries on his side under Ospak, Brodir’s brother and foe, and they were mailed, just as a thousand of Sigurd of Orkney’s followers were mailed from head to foot.
Most Irish were said to disdain the use of armour, thinking it unmanly. REH mentions this, and there are references in the sagas and annals which support him – Giraldus Cambrensis, for instance, whom Howard cites in a footnote in “Spears of Clontarf.” When Dunlang’s lover Eevin offers him armour to save his life in the coming battle, he’s dubious, saying, “Of all the Gaels, only Turlogh Dubh wears full mail.”
Eevin answers passionately, “And is any man of the Gael braver than he?” (Actually Howard wrote “less brave,” but that must be one of his occasional hasty errors; it would imply that Turlogh was craven, not heroic!) In “Spears of Clontarf” Eevin is a girl of Pictish blood, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and the armour she offers Dunlang is the cuirass once worn by a gladiator in the Roman arenas. The super-natural variant, “The Grey God Passes,” complete with Odin and his Choosers of the Slain, has Eevin transmuted into a woman of the Tuatha De Danann, a faerie lover with a gift of enchanted mail and the talent of foresight.
A thousand years ago, as danger mounted through the winter of 1013-14, Brian Boru showed his usual sagacity and sent his second son Donnchad on a harrying expedition into Meath. The Irish most hostile to him were thus compelled to stay at home and defend their lands, instead of joining Sigtrygg Silkbeard in Dublin. But Sigtrygg (“Sitric” in REH’s stories) was tricky as well. The day before the battle, he had Sigurd of Orkney, Brodir, and his Danish allies leave the bay of Dublin in their longships, as though deserting him – news to gladden Brian’s great heart. But they merely sailed out of sight and then returned to Dublin in the hours of next darkness, to catch the Irish unprepared next morning.
It was the morning of Good Friday.
Brian, a devout Christian despite his political acumen, was loath to fight a battle then, but the Vikings left him no choice. Brodir had taken omens which declared that fighting on any other day would mean an utter rout for the Dublin king and his allies. If they fought on Good Friday, Brian would still be victorious, but he would lose his life. In both “Spears of Clontarf” and “The Grey God Passes,” Howard makes these omens a reading of the blood and heart of a human sacrifice to Odin, who appears at the sacrifice, as he has earlier to Conn, the runaway thrall, come to fight for Brian. This is consistent with Howard’s portrayal of Odin as a relentless god of war and death, not a benign All-Father. So he was. Human sacrifice was part of his cult in fact, not fiction, usually by spear-thrust or hanging.
Despite the complications and divided loyalties involved, Clontarf really was, in essence, the last showdown between the Irish and the Vikings, between Christian and pagan. For three hundred years the Danes had raided, plundered, enslaved and killed, as symbolized by the character of Conn the thrall in “Spears of Clontarf,” who brains his Viking master at the beginning of the yarn and flees with whip-scars on his back to the field of Clontarf, to fight for Brian. The Irish now had a great leader and at least a measure of unity. Payback was coming. It really was, in the end, much as Howard expressed it in his poem, “Song Before Clontarf.”
Lean on your sword, red-bearded lord, and watch your victims crawl; Under your feet they weakly beat the dust with their dying hands. The red smokes roll from the serf’s roof-pole and the chieftain’s shattered hall, But there are fires in the heather and a whetting of hungry brands.
The peaked prows loom like clouds of doom along each broken port; The monks lie still on the heathered hill among the fallen stones. Over the land like a god you stand, our maidens howl for your sport, But kites await in the heather to tear the flesh from your bones.
Clouds and smoke for a broken folk, a lash for the bended back, Thus you roared when your crimson sword blotted the moon on high, But sea breaks and the world shakes to the battle’s flying wrack, And Death booms out of the heather to nail you in the sky.