by mariocorrigan on February 16, 2008

With the political unification of England under the Norse King Eadred in the 10th century, the old game was up for the Dublin Vikings. There would be less and less raiding as the Norse built up Dublin to be an economic environment. Apart from an unsuccessful siege by the king of Tara Domhnall Uí Néill for a whole generation Dublin was left alone and enjoyed an unprecedented degree of political stability. When the High King Domhnall died in 980, the Uí Néill nominated Malachy the Great of Meath as king. But he was facing the challenge of Brian Ború, an ambitious Munsterman who was already subduing small uprisings in Leinster and preventing the spread of Norse influence. Olaf Cúarán had been the Viking ruler of Dublin for over forty years, but as an old man he married Gormflaith, the daughter of Murchadha MacFinn, Lord of Naas, a member of the Uí Fháeláin, a powerful dynasty based at Naas. Gormflaith was born in Naas around 940, and according to Njals Saga was “endowed with great beauty”. The union bore a son, Sitric. Gormflaith followed her union with Olaf with marriages to Malachy of Tara and Brian Ború, all three of which marriages are remarked upon in a witty stanza preserved in the genealogies:
Three leaps were made by Gormflaith
Which no other woman will make until Doomsday;
A leap into Dublin, a leap into Tara,
A leap into Cashel, a plain of mounds which surpasses all.
In 980 Olaf was defeated by Malachy II at Tara and the old Viking went to Iona on pilgrimage, where he died. Malachy occupied Dublin but allowed Sitric to remain as its ruler in return for paying considerable tribute. In a strategic move, Malachy married Gormflaith. When Murchadha was killed his son, Mael Mordha, succeeded him as Lord of Naas. With his sister Gormflaith as virtual queen of Dublin Mael Mordha had his eyes on the kingship of Leinster. In 999 Sitric attacked Kildare town and ravaged it. At the same time Mael Mordha became king of Leinster and offered his kingdom and resources to Sitric. Brian Ború and Malachy put aside their differences and united to fight the common foe. Their combined forces took on the Leinster army at Gleann Máma in the Kill-Rathcoole area where Malachy and Brian were victorious. There were heavy casualties on both sides, Brian’s opponents losing 4,000 men.
At the conclusion of this battle Brian’s son Murchadha discovered Mael Mordha high up in a yew tree, hiding from his enemies. Brian spared him, although he was held prisoner until Ború received the required number of hostages from the Leinstermen. When he was released Mael Mordha submitted to Ború and paid the required annual tribute. Brian followed up his victory by plundering Dublin. To negotiate peace, Brian married one of his daughters to Sitric, who submitted to him and he took Gormflaith as his wife. She was estranged from Malachy at the time and under the liberal Brehon Laws Brian was able to marry her. Gormflaith bore him a son, Donnchad, but she “was utterly wicked” and was later divorced by Brian. She began engineering opposition to the High King. Brian Ború did not feel he could be high king of Ireland until he took Dublin and defeated Malachy of Tara. Dublin and North Leinster had remained a stumbling block in Boru’s attempts to unite the whole of Ireland under one king, a High King. Ború’s main rival in Leinster was Malachy who as a member of the southern Ui Néill, always the strongest kings of Ireland, also claimed the kingship. Ború became High King in 1002 but it was high king in name only until both Malachy and Viking Dublin were entirely subdued.
In 1012 and 1013 the Vikings again attacked and pillaged Kildare. Malachy, who had grudgingly accepted Brian’s high kingship rose in revolt. He sought allies in Ulster and Connaught but only found one regional ruler in Ulster who had only recently submitted to Brian. Together they attacked Meath, and Brian led a force from Munster and from southern Connaught into Leinster in defence. A detachment under his son, Murchadh, ravaged the southern half of Leinster for three months. The forces under Murchadh and Brian were reunited on 9 September 1013 outside the walls of Dublin. The city was blockaded, but it was Ború’s army that ran out of supplies first. He was forced to abandon the siege and returned to Munster around Christmas. Malachy needed allies quickly for Borúwas sure to return again with a bigger army. He instructed his cousin Sitric to travel overseas and gain more aid and with Gormflaith’s prompting Sitric began gathering support from Vikings outside Ireland, most notably Earl Sigurd of Orkney and Brodir of the Isle of Man. The conflict Gormflaith engineered now came to a climax at the Battle of Clontarf.
The two armies met at Clontarf on Good Friday, 23 April 1014. Old rivalry resurfaced again when the North Leinster forces sided with Sitric against Ború. The power of the Vikings was finally broken at the Battle of Clontarf. Although victorious Brian was killed by Brodir of Man, who was fleeing the battle. Brodir gathered a few warriors and burst through the thinned pen of shields guarding the seventy-two year old High King and decapitated him. He was instantly captured and subsequently suffered a very long, cruel, and grisly death. The battle saw the Norse and Irish army annihilated. Every one of their leaders, Sigurd, Brodir, Mael Mordha, and Dubhgall, was slain and from an army of 6,600 only 600 survived. The Irish paid dearly for their victory though with the death of Brian Ború, his son Murrough, grandson Turlough, brother Cuduiligh, and nephew Coniang. In addition ten Munster kings and 1,600 other nobles also perished along with 2,400 common warriors so that from an army of 7,000 less than 3,000 survived. However, neither Gormflaith nor Sitric were killed, as they were safe behind the walls of Dublin. She died in 1030, Sitric died in 1036.

James Durney reveals that Gormflaith, wife of Brian Boru was in fact a Naas woman. Our thanks to James

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