Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Battle of Clontarf Millennial Part 1 of 2


One thousand years ago today (23 April 2014), a very important battle took place on (or near) the northeastern coast of what is now known as Dublin City. That's right, one thousand years. It's amazing to this American to see a nation so young in its official current status (The Republic of Ireland was only recognized in 1922) celebrating a national heritage going back so far. The island of Ireland and its people have a strong connection to their heritage, and it's no surprise that so many Irish-Americans feel that ancestral connection calling every St. Patrick's Day.

With The United States being a relatively young (1776) country, and the American continent settled (read: seized, stolen, and worse) by meticulous written-record-keeping Europeans since the sixteenth century, it is very rare to have so much knowledge going back those thousand years.

The Battle of Clontarf was famously fought near the modern-day north Dublin neighborhood of Clontarf on one long, bloody day. Very briefly, the battle was the culmination of a long struggle for control over the Island of Ireland. Brian Boru and his Irish allies took on the Viking King of Dublin and his Viking and Irish allies in a nasty slugfest for control of Dubh Linn, even then the political capital of Ireland. 

Both leaders had their own armies and the armies of friends from around Ireland and the surrounding isles. The fight supposedly began at first light and high tide. By sunset, the Vikings had been routed and forced to retreat, many of them fleeing into the second high tide of the day and drowning. After the battle, Brian Boru was assassinated in his tent by one of the Viking allies.

After the battle, the Vikings slowly lost their political power over the island of Ireland, and Brian's successors began slowly unifying the island into a single political entity, no small feat in those days. 

Historical Lectures

To commemorate this legendary battle, local governments and educational institutions have been hosting a number of entertaining and educational events. More than one series of free historical lectures have been running in Dublin, and I've tried to attend as many as I can, given the unfortunate why-is-everything-on-Tuesday-at-lunchtime!? circumstance. 

The first lecture I attended was at the Royal Irish Academy library. The subject of the lecture was the genealogy of Brian Boru and the challenges of ancient genealogical research. Boru was part of a mini-dynasty, but the origins of the clan are, like any millenium-old records, murky. I was most interested in learning about the process of research of this kind. When the only surviving records of an ancient time are the epic poems and stories commissioned by powerful people for only a few literate elite, one must question the veracity of any statement. Powerful families would often exaggerate, or completely fabricate, connections to other royal families in order to artificially boost their own families' prestige. Because of all this historical boasting and lying, it is very difficult to judge the merits of any particular record.

The next lecture at the RIA was a discussion of the hard archaeological evidence, or lack thereof, from the Battle of Clontarf. Interestingly and surprisingly, nothing of hard material evidence has been found from the battle, and it is unlikely anything ever will be found. This was quite a shock to me, but the explanation was sound. Medieval battles were fought with swords, spears, arrows, and other like weapons. In the heat of battle, the field would be littered with these pieces, but they would all be collected after the battle (probably by the winners) for repair and reuse. Ancient peoples with limited resources would never leave valuable metal and tools lying around to be buried and recovered centuries later. 

A number of mass graves have been found throughout the development of Dublin, and some of them were attributed to Clontarf, but modern researches wonder. There is little evidence of the people of this time burying battle dead in large graves at the battle site. Certainly mass graves were used, but they more commonly transported their dead to be buried in consecrated religious ground. That some of these graves have been found with weapons and armor gives further credence to the theory, as these people would have never buried their rank-and-file soldiers with valuable weapons and armor. These were most likely people of political or religious importance, and the weapons and armor were buried as offerings or rituals. 

Modern battles fought with guns and small projectiles leave much more durable evidence for researchers to retrieve, but Clontarf leaves us only with written accounts, many of which were written decades or centuries after the battle, and are fluffed up with no small amount of myth, legend, and ancient propaganda. These documents have to be tested with other, more scientific, forms of measurement. In one document, it is recorded that the tide was high at sunrise and high again as the battle drew to a close in the evening. It goes on to say that the tides were at the highest of their cycle, indicating a spring tide, which occurs when the sun and moon are in syzygy (my favorite science word) and pull the oceans with their combined gravity. Researchers have calculated back through the years that the tides would indeed have been high at sunrise and evening on that day, but they were nowhere near the high levels of a spring tide. Most likely, the bard recording the events added the spring tide for an extra bit of flair, and a better reward from his patron.

The tide check is but a minor victory of fact checking in a sea of myth and mystery. When a battle like this is recorded in only a few documents, none of which were actually written by eyewitnesses, it is next to impossible to test most of the claims. A wide range of estimates exists among scholars as to the actual number of participants and casualties of the battle, but who knows for sure? Through the years, the number of combatants seemed to grow to an unreasonable number as the tale got taller. What important Irish family wouldn't want to claim their ancestors had fought in the most important battle in Ireland's history? The same thing has happened among common Irish lore with the 1916 Easter Rising and the siege of the General Post Office in Dublin. More people claim to have had grandparents in the building than the building could have ever held. Clearly, some (or most) of them are fabricated. At this reference in the lecture, I observed the common chuckle and murmur of agreement I have seen so many times in Irish audiences at historical talks. 

Clontarf coverage to be continued...

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