1014 and all that


Image: seriykotik1970/Flickr (CC BY-NC)

Today marks the 1000th anniversary of the death of Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf on 23rd April 1014 AD. You would have to have been hiding under a rock in deepest darkest Antarctica to have missed out on the plethora of associated festivities, events and commemorations that have been taking place in Ireland over the last few weeks. As an early medievalist, it was quite refreshing to see so much attention and interest in the media and public gaze. Some highlights include the wonderful TCDs ‘Emporer of the Irish’ Exhibition, History Hubs excellent video series on the background and legacy of the battle, the Irish Times heritage supplement on the subjects involved, the Contarf 1014 Exhibition in the National Museum and the TG4 documentary ‘Cluain Tarbh’ (still available on their online player).

Amongst all the the historical interpretation, contextualization, national & local promotion initiatives, educational endeavors, harnessing of tourism potential and – lets be honest – some blatant attempts to cash in on some sexed up horny Viking action; there has been little attention on an underlying historical consequence that (although unrealized at the time) would go on to have far reaching ramifications. And so, as we come to the end of the main commemoration, I thought I would throw my two cent into the larger Boruhaha.


Image: Ran Yaniv Hartstein / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


For me, 1014 AD acts as an arbitrary but convenient ‘endpoint’ for early medieval Ireland. Listening and reading about all the political and historical machinations involved in Brian Boru’s rise to power reminded me of just how different early medieval Irish society (and its aspirations and external viewpoint at large) had become by c.1000AD when compared to the preceding 500 years. No shit sherlock, says you. Half a millennium. Who’d have thunk it. Quite.

And yet, even medievalists need occasional reminding. Ask a group of them when the medieval period starts and ends, and you will undoubtedly get several different answers and categories. In the past, I had generally used 400-900AD as my own personal dividing line for ‘Early Medieval Ireland’ followed by ‘the rest of the medieval period’, however else you want to call it. But the more I think about it, the more I’m coming around to moving it forward a century or so. The reason? Dublin. The Aul Smoke. The Durty Auld Town. Urbanization in general and everything it brought to a wider national stage.

Carry On Camping

What started out as a seemingly random Viking extended holiday in 841 AD had, by the time of Clontarf, turned into something too important to ignore or sideline. Only a few years before the battle, the Hiberno-Norse of Dublin had started minting their own coins, the earliest insular coinage in Ireland. Economics. The potential of independence, or rather, the potential for the Hiberno-Norse bypassing or ignoring regional kings and/or wider events elsewhere in Ireland. External trade. Slaves and goods on an industrial scale. Transport and communication networks. External relationships and alliances overseas. Ports and ships.

Lots and lots of ships.


If Brian Boru’s rise to power is to be seen as a watershed in Irish history for breaking with insular custom, precedent and providing the first real regional challenge to the Uí Neill hegemony of proto-national kingship – then the Battle of Clontarf can perhaps be seen as an inevitable extension of such a challenge and the natural endpoint of his rivals adventures of 980 AD. For the first time (and what would turn out to become an essential requirement in the future) control and influence of Dublin – and its underlying  potential for wealth, power and fleets – became an essential component to anybody seeking strategic power, prestige and legitimacy on an island wide scale.

You could almost say, 1014 AD marks  the embryonic beginnings of a ‘capital’ city in the eyes of beholders. Not out of loyalty, admiration or regard, but out of political and economic necessity. As such, it marks the beginning of insular Irish politics looking, and thinking, on a larger, quasi-national scale alongside Dublin’s paramount position within the same.

Thin Red Line

None of this is a particularly new argument, of course. But it nevertheless deserves to be included in recent events, precisely because of that element of ‘scale’. Not because it was envisioned at the time (I subscribe to the Battle of Clontarf as being essentially seen at the time as an internal power play) but because of where ‘it’ – i.e. Hiberno-Norse Dublin and its strategic influence, power and presence – would lead to. Aside from later myth, legends and propaganda, one can – if one closes an eye – trace a thin red line from April 1014 to Cambro & Anglo Norman adventures a century and a half later.

No, not that infamous stag party of 1169 AD, or the lap of honour the following year. Or even the mother-of-all-sulks of the father of the bride, one Diarmait Mac Murchada, Esq. What is generally not remembered, is that a far more important event occurred the preceding year, in 1165 AD:

An expedition of the Saxons and of the Foreigners (Hiberno-Norse and the Fleet) of Ath-cliath (Dublin) set out with the son of the Empress (Henry II), to subjugate the Britons (Welsh Rebels) and they were all for the space of half a years attacking them and they they availed not. And they returned without peace backwards.

Annals of Ulster, 1165.7

In other words, Hiberno-Norse Dublin and its Fleet, once again, playing an important, strategic role within insular politics and machinations – only this time – it was those on the other side of the Irish sea. And once that line was crossed, there was no going back. What happened next is still reverberating to this day, in one form or another.

1014 and all that…

So, with the greatest of respect, and with apologies to my fellow citizens of the northside (spit), it seems  to me that the Battle of Clontarf could easily be renamed ‘The Battle for Dublin’ – ‘and all that it represented for the future’. Dublin’s place in 1014 and all that… literally became ‘all that’.

So, raise a glass. Because I for one welcome our new Viking, Hiberno-Norse, Cambro/Anglo-Norman, Old English, More Irish than the Irish themselves, Durty Bleedin’ Foreigner, Jackeen Overlords. We Dubs have always been considered ‘foreigners’ by our mucksavage peasant subjects. Clontarf 1014 AD, in more ways than one, is how, why and when it all started. For better or worse. Till death do us part.

Proper bleedin’ order.


–>(wordcount: 1014)<– (I’m that good)


Bibliography & Further Reading

Downham, Clare (2003) ‘England and the Irish Sea Zone in the Eleventh Century’, Anglo-Norman Studies vol 26, 55-73.

Downham, Clare (2014) ‘The Battle Clontarf AD 1014 and the Wider World ‘, History Ireland, Vol 22, No 2, 22-29.

Duffy, Seán (2004) ‘Brian Bóruma [Brian Boru] (c.941–1014)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/3377

Duffy, Séan (2007) ‘Henry II and England’s Insular neighbours’, in Christopher Harper-Bill & Nicholas Vincent (eds), Henry II: new interpretations, Woodbridge, Suffolk, The Boydell Press, 129-153.

Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí (1995) Early Medieval Ireland, 400–1200, London and New York.

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