April 23rd marks a thousand years since Irish history's most famous, and arguably most misunderstood, battle that took place in Clontarf, then a meadowland about a mile north of the capital city in 1014.
The Munster regent, Brian Ború, led his army and a force of allied troops against a largely Leinster army whose auxiliaries included the Dublin Vikings, and his ultimate victory (though he himself died in the attempt) meant that this battle has since been regarded by many as the final victory of Gael over Viking in Ireland. However this is simply one misapprehension (Viking auxiliaries fought on the Munster side too) that exists regarding how Munster and Leinster ended up at this point of no return, what exactly was at stake, what actually transpired on that fateful day, and just what the title "High King" meant to the different protagonists.
Throughout Ireland in 2014 a range of activities and exhibitions will be taking place to commemorate the event and enhance understanding of its nature and relevance. The battle's context in terms of the society that existed before it and that which came in its wake is a particularly welcome feature of some of this activity. It is far too often seen in isolation and for that reason as much as any its actual effect on what came after is so fundamentally misunderstood, even by people who consider themselves knowledgeable about the period.
Other questions hang over the event. How much of a Munster man was its regent Ború? His funeral, performed with what looks like rather inconsiderate haste on the day of the battle, took place at Navan Fort in Armagh - miles away from the territory he was conquering and even further away from his own land. How astute a military leader was he in fact? The accounts of the battle from the period describe a stalemate, the victory only being secured after Ború was already dead and the battle-hardened Scandinavian fleet whose addition to the Leinster side would normally have been enough to secure at least an upper hand in any battle, for some strange reason made the elementary mistake of allowing their ships to be carried way offshore by a receding tide which left their landed troops exposed and isolated. Did Vikings actually make a habit of such stupid mistakes two hundred and fifty years into their perfecting of coastal warfare and raiding? And was the battle even in Clontarf? Amazingly the first time this suburb was named in connection with the battle is from almost two hundred years later, a list of Munster kings in The Book of Leinster that cites Brian Ború's place of death as "Clontarf Weir".
Much is made of the fact that in ultimate terms the battle had probably no discernably important long-term effect at all. The issue of High Kingship remained a thorny one and more inclined to provoke warfare than peace amongst the rival factions competing for it. Viking involvement continued, albeit at a more sedate level than before. Viking forces based in Dublin were still to play a role in several developments in England, so to call them neutralised would be rather incorrect (never mind "vanquished" as the legend states). However even before the battle the pattern of Viking involvement in Irish affairs had undergone a fundamental shift from predator to landowner and, most importantly, urbanism. After all it was they who had established these new important commercial hubs and it was their expertise that the Gaelic overlords had to accommodate, and even encourage. Much after the battle therefore simply had to continue as before, no matter who had "won" it.
What have been emerging in recent years are various analyses of Irish society in the 11th and 12th centuries that do not preclude the notion that Brian Ború's famous "victory" was in fact a significant step towards ensuring that Gaelic Ireland would in fact be further exposed to foreign interference from that point on, a chain of events ending with complete English domination a few hundred years later. Ború's most important contribution to this was the fundamental policy switch regarding auxiliary assistance. Military alliances in Ireland before had been forged between leaders who at least temporarily could see themselves as equals in terms of status and potential gain from their ventures. Ború changed the rules - he recruited auxiliaries (including entire petty kingdoms) in a manner designed to ensure his predominance within the resulting army and, more importantly, his dominance over all territory and wealth that was won. His notion of "High Kingship" was therefore one that resembled the European model. It was no longer a "first among equals" but a position of absolute power, essentially the only king worth naming as such on the island. Ironically he failed to achieve this status in the end, dying as he did on the day he would have won it, but his lesson was well learnt by those who came after him. A certain Diarmuid Mac Murragh would make the same play for top position and employ some rather well trained mercenaries just as Brian had done before him. Diarmuid's problem was they were a little too well trained to be managed after his own "victory" with their help and the Normans were to shortly destroy forever the possibility for a Gaelic king, however "high", to claim overlordship across the entire island.
A link to the website with links to all the relevant events this year is here:http://www.brianborumillennium.ie/