VIKING - 3: IRELAND - The Hiberno-Norse Connection
"You have a friend in whom you barely trust, although you wish his goodwill. Be fair in speech, yet false in thought - repay betrayal with falsity".
A look at Viking Age Ireland through the eyes of Fin Gall - fiction at its best, an image of life in the days before the Normans overran the Emerald Isle. Strife, warfare, the different Norse groups - Danes and West Norse - take sides in their bid for control in late 9th and into 10th Century Ireland. One of - so far - three best-selling books by US author James L Nelson
Vikings in Ireland
A fleet of ships raiding around the Hebrides in AD617
may have been Norse, although the first definite date of Viking involvement on Hibernian soil would have been AD795. This was on Reachrainn (at times taken as Lambey near Dublin but probably Rathlin, a few miles north-east of the Irish mainland) where two monasteries were sacked along the coast.
Initially the incursions were no more than hit-and-run attacks by small warbands, but the raiding was stepped up after around AD830. The Danes were more interested in taking land and around AD840 a warband leader by the name of Thorkell/Thorgils set himself up as 'Lord of all the Outsiders in Erin'.
Dublin, or Dyflin was begun with the building of a 'longphort', or stronghold at a ford on the River Liffey where the Danes first over-wintered in AD841-2. It was not long before similar bases were set up along the coast and inland, but always by rivers with direct access to the sea or on river islands. Thus were Cork, Hlimrekr (Limerick), Vedrfjord (Waterford), Veigsfjord (Wexford) and Viklangr (Wicklow) established by both Danes and West Norse (Norwegians), becoming more influential by the 10th Century.
Viking power thereafter centred on Dublin, apart from AD902-919, with its own kings chosen by the Danes. The Norsemen found themselves being drawn on opposing sides in the Irish kings' petty territorial squabbles and alliances arose frequently - such as with the kings of Leinster and the Dublin Danes. It was this last alliance in AD1014 that led to one of the most feted (and fated) battles in Hiberno-Norse history; in the Battle of Clontarf the Danish king of Dublin supported Maelmordha of Leinster in his bid to oust the high king Brian Boru.
An ambitious and forthright chieftain, Brian Boru was one of the few high kings of the age able to claim to be king of all Ireland in more than merely name. He did not endear himself to Ireland's many smaller kingships, and in the final months of AD999 Maelmordha of Leinster allied himself with Sigtrygg 'Slkeskegg' (or Sihtric Silkbeard) of Dublin. Brian Boru took a large army to meet them at Glenn Marna, crushing their combined forces. Maelmordha only managed to flee by hiding in a yew tree. Despited being reinstated in a gesture of magnanimity by Boru their defeat festered in their minds. Brian's hot-headed son Murchad re-opened the wound tactlessly in AD1012 because of losing a game of chess in which Maelmordha advised his opponent. Reminding the Leinster king of the defeat in the Wicklow Mountains, Murchad told him, 'How wonderfully you counselled the Norsemen on the day they lost another game at Glenn Marna!'
Mortified, Maelmordha answered, 'I shall counsel them once more, but this time the outcome will not be as the last!' To which Murchad retorted, 'Be sure there is a yew tree at hand this time, too!'
Maelmordha left under a cloud, summoned his chieftains and spurred them on to rebellion. By AD1013 sporadic fighting had broken out. Murchad had Maelmordha on the run before long and the Leinster king was obliged to take shelter with Sigtrygg in a by now heavily-fortified Dublin. Besieged by Murchad and Brian until the Yulefeast when the besiegers' supporters broke camp, Sigtrygg took advantage of the lull by taking ship for Ljodhus (Lewis) to look for allies. According to the Annals of Innisfallen he was given men by Viking leaders around north-western Britain. Reinforcements came from the Hebrides, Katanes (Caithness), Kintyre in Suthraland (Sutherland), Norway and even from Normandy, Flanders, Frisia and Russia. Sigurd 'the Stout', Earl of Orkney rallied to Sigtrygg's standards, as well as Brodir of Man with twenty ships - yet his vice-regent Ospak took ten ships with men for Brian Boru!
In the fore-year of AD1014 all these men gathered outside Dublin. Boru confronted them with an army of some twenty-thousand drawn from Munster, the midlands and southern Connaught/Connacht. On Good Friday, April 23rd the two armies drew up on the plain. Accounts vary as to how the two armies were drawn up. There is a groundswell of opinion that the Norsemen, their allies and Leinstermen stood in up to seven distinct divisions. They were spreading themselves too thinly on the ground to guard their formations, or cover their line of withdrawal to the bridge across the Liffey, and hold Boru's men off their allies' ships anchored in the bay. An account in 'Njal's Saga', set down centuries later by Snorri Sturlusson has it that Brodir was on one flank, Sigtrygg on the other and Jarl Sigurd in the centre. There is no mention of the disposition of Maelmordha's Leinstermen, although it is likely they formed the greatest part of the alliance. Giving Sigtrygg a position on the field is also erroneous as he stayed within the city, his brother Dubghall leading the Dublin Vikings instead. The 'outside' Norsemen under Sigurd and Brodir were on the left to keep an eye on the right to hold the bridge. Maelmordha commanded the centre of the line on the higher ground.
How Brian Boru set out his men i even less clear. Their right flank hinged on the Liffey, that much is known, their left on the River Tolka. Brian, by then in his seventy-third spring, wished to honour the spirit of Good Friday and bore no arms, so a shieldwall stood around him. In command was Murchad, his cousin Conaing/Conan and a fifteen-year-old Toirdelbach assisting. Njal's Saga has it that Brian's youngest, Tadg was there. Brian stayed at prayer in his tent at Tomar's Wood, his men arrayed in a phalanx so tight a four-horse chariot could have run from one end to the other over their heads, so compacted were they! It is also said that they were arrayed in individual 'battals', and in three ranks.
'The two sides clashed, and there was bitter fighting', Njal's Saga tells us. In the middle of the Hiberno-Norse array Maelmordha urged his men on in a downhill attack on Murchad's men, driving deep into Boru's phalanx. His Norse allies on either side fared less well, however. Murchad's over-whelming numbers showed and the Leinstermen were driven back, routed almost, pushed back to the city along with the Danes. In fact the Danes were so hard-pressed that a score or less of them reached their gates alive. The Norse left flank pulled together and the Leinstermen fell back on the right wing; but they were practically surrounded left and right by Murchad's Munstermen. They could but fall back on the sea, but as the tide had come in untold numbers drowned in their bid to reach the ships.
Nevertheless the best part of the day had passed and the fighting was still un-decided. Some of the Norsemen - amongst whom Brodir featured strongly - hacked their way through Murchad's men to the high king's camp behind the Irish formations. Brodir could see that King Brian's men were chasing after those fleeing in battle and there were only a few to stand in the sheld-wall. He sped through the trees, overcame the king's defenders and cut at Brian Boru. Tadg held up an arm to defend his father but Brodir's sword blade sliced through the arm and sheared off the high king's head. Njal's Saga goes on, 'Then Brodir roared, "Let word go out Brodir has felled Brian Boru -". The Manx king had little time to relish the feat as he and gis fellows were ringed in, taken prisoner and later executed'.
The Annals of the War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill tallied Irish losses as 3,100, those of the Irish-Danish alliance as 2,500. Other chroniclers put the figures at 6,000 'outsiders'. Another source, the Leabhar Oiris, says Viking losses were perhaps over 3,000. Additionally almost all the alliance's leaders were killed, Jarl Sigurd, Brodir of Man, Dubhgall and Maelmordha being chief among them. Few of any men of high standing left the field alive. Murchad died the morning after his father was slain, and Boru's grandson Toirdelbach drowned in the chase, as did Murchad's nephew Conaing.
Seven other kings fell with them, countless nobles dead by the end of the slaughter. One scribe had the death count of the men of Connacht and Munster at about 4,000. Yet this battle did not mark the end of Viking rule in Ireland - the beginnings of their loss of power had already begun in the mid-10th Century - and Sigtrygg ruled dor another two decades. Other than in raiding - as when Magnus 'Barelegs' came in AD1101 - there would be a hundred-and-fifty years before Norsemen fought again on Hibernian soil.
Viking Age Dublin excavated. Late in the 8th Century the West Norse established themselves in Leinster. In the 9th came the more organised Danes and stayed much longer. They were the makings of Dublin although their kings were ejected more than once, including Sigtrygg (or Sihtric) 'Caech', who for a short time took over the kingship of Jorvik in the 10th Century until Aethelstan's reign.
Sigtrygg (pron. 'Sihtric') 'Caech' was king of Dublin for four years..
He was a grandson of Ivar I, one of Ragnar Lothbrok's sons. Along with brother Ragnald he led a great fleet that entered Waterford in AD 914 to take power in Ireland. In AD 917 he re-took Dyflin (Dublin) from the Gaels and two years later beat back a Gaelic counter-attack at Islandbridge, where the Ua Neill king Niall Glundubh fell alongside a number of under-kings. Ragnald was made king of Jorvik, and when he died Sigtrygg succeeded him, leaving Dyflin to another brother Guthfrith.
He was obliged to agree to treaty at Tamworth in Mercia with Aethelstan, king of a fledgling Aengla Land (England). In doing so he also took Christianity and was given Aethelstan's sister Eadgyth in marriage as a 'reward' for his compliance. The year after, AD 927, Sigtrygg died and Aethelstan took Jorvik. With this he removed Sigtrygg's son Olaf from power, ousting with him his uncle Guthfrith who had come from Dyflin to bolster Jorvik's defences.
Sigtrygg Olafsson, 'Silkeskegg' (Silk-beard')
became king of Dyflin in AD 989. He ruled well for thirty-seven years, although struggled to maintain Dyflin's political independence against steadily strengthening Gaelic power. He was the son of Olaf Sigtryggsson and came to power as under-king of the Ua Neill high king Mael Sechnaill II. In AD 997 Brian 'Boru' of Munster and Mael Sechnaill shared Ireland. Dyflin came under the overlordship of Brian. The prospect of a loss of independence Sigtrygg struck up an alliance with Leinster in AD 999. They were beaten soundly by Brian, who took over Dyflin. Submitting, Sigtrygg was given the under-kingship and was wedded to one of the high-king's daughters. Brian was already wedded to Sigtrygg's mother Gormflaith and was effectively his step-father.
Allied to Mael Morda of Leinster in AD 1012 he rebelled and a year later Brian tried unsuccessfully to besiege Dyflin. In AD 1014 he set up an alliance between Mael Morda and Sigurd 'the Stout' of Orkney. Brian defeated them at Clontarf, although he lost his own life refusing to fight on the Good Friday, falling to Norsemen who attacked his camp and slew his grandson. They themselves fell to the Gaels. With the death of Brian 'Boru' Mael Sechnaill reasserted his overlordship over Dyflin.
Sigtrygg went on with the struggle but the Danes were beaten as often as they won. By the time he handed over the kingship to his nephew Echmarcach mac Ragnaill in AD 1026 Dyflin was once more an under-kingship. He was the first ruler in Ireland who had a coinage minted in the manner of neighbouring Aengla Land under Knut. He was a devout Christian who went to Rome on pilgrimage in AD 1028, and was the founder in AD 1030 of Christ Church Cathedral in Dyflin, one of his daughters taking the veil not long after.
He was slain during a second pilgrimage to Rome in AD 1042