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This video, the second of a two-part series for History Hub to mark 1000 years since the Battle of Clontarf, charts how the 1014 battle was skilfully usurped and retold by various nationalists for political purposes. It focuses in particular on Daniel O’Connell in 1843 and the Irish Volunteers in 1914 both of whom artfully propagated the myth of a David and Goliath struggle of the Irish against powerful foreign oppressors. This UCD video challenges this myth and shows how Brian Boru was put to propaganda purposes by nationalists in later years.

About the video

Just as the Americans and the French have their revolutionary foundations in 1776 and 1789, the emergent Irish nation used 1014 as a powerful ingredient for its own national glue. Battles in the medieval past have always been popular with propagandists and the video compares the use of Clontarf in Ireland’s long nineteenth century with Balkan portrayals of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.

Far from being a battle of Irishmen united against foreign invaders, the Battle of Clontarf closer resembled a family feud between opposing Leinster and Munster rivals. Dr Elva Johnston explains how the Viking King of Dublin, Sitric, was Brian Boru’s son-in-law and how Gormlaith, Brian’s ex-wife, was sister to his rival, Mael Mórdha, King of Leinster. Within two generations of the battle, the legend of Brian had firmly departed from fact. Sitric, the Christian King of Dublin, had become a pagan conspirator. Brian, by contrast, became a Christian martyr who died praying in his tent on the edge of the field of battle. King Sitric’s enlistment of foreign Viking allies earned him the place of the villain and retellings of the saga ignored the peaceful integration of Vikings in coastal settlements like Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford.

The Vikings’ spectacular slaughter of Brian Boru earned him an immediate and lasting place amongst the myths and legends of Irish history. By the twentieth century, the tale of Clontarf was revived when Irish nationalists armed themselves with rifles landed at Howth in 1914, they saw themselves as repeating history when they clashed with British soldiers and police at Clontarf on their return to the city. Two years later, leaders of the 1916 Rebellion told their forces they were echoing Brian Boru’s Good Friday sacrifice, with echoes of Christian martyrdom, when they seized buildings across Dublin at Easter. Brian Boru became such an iconic figure in the story of Irish nationalism over the ages that it is hardly surprising that the emblem of Ireland is the Brian Boru harp.

The video features contributions from UCD historians Dr Elva Johnston, Dr Eamon O’Flaherty, Dr Conor Mulvagh and Dr Meidhbhín Ní Úrdail of the School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore & Linguistics. The video was edited and directed by Mike Liffey of HistoryHub.ie and was wholly funded by the UCD School of History and Archives.

Part 1 – 1014: Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf

Image: Brain Boru sculpture outside Chapel Royal outside Dublin Castle by Marshallhenrie (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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