Tuesday, March 11, 2014

1014 Part 2


A combination of Clontarf and Raheny Heritage Societies are running a series of talks on the Battle of Clontarf as part of the 1014-2014 programme. This is a report on the second of the talks I attended. You can see the first report here.

This talk dealt with Brian Boru and his family's path from a local Munster royalty to the Kingship of Ireland. Who was he, who were his people and how did he rise to become the victor at Clontarf and, posthumously, copperfasten his claim on the Kingship of Ireland?

The actual title of the talk was "Brian Boru and his Dail Cais Origins" and it was given by Dr. Cathy Swift, Head of Irish Studies at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

It was a fabulous talk. Cathy Swift bubbles over with enthusiasm for her subject and her delivery is in informal colloquial English. You end up sharing that enthusiasm and travelling the road with her. A most interesting one, and a road, as she will tell you, less travelled.

She bore out my contention that, these days, it is a test of a good lecturer that they can engage an audience without using overheads/powerpoint. Cathy's got left behind in Limerick, but the verbal visuals were marvellous. As they say, radio has the best pictures.


Cathy Swift

She traced Brian's descent from the, probably mythical, Cas, from whom we get Dail Cais. But she made the point that his more immediate ancestry was more reliable.

She followed the ascent to power of his brother Mathgamain and its passing to Brian when the brother was killed. She made the point that the position Brian was in by 1014 had been a good 60 years in the making.

Like Pat Wallace, in the previous talk, she demolished the Brian Boru rubbish we got in school, Brian the exemplary Christian driving the evil Heathen into the sea. He was clearly no saint as his execution of all the male prisoners of military age after the taking of Limerick shows. And the Viking/Irish interactions were not all hostile either. There was a lot of peaceful trading co-existence.

And that was an element that surprised many in the audience. This year's commemorations are thought of by Dubliners in a Dublin/Clontarf context. But Cathy's talk concentrated on the pre-Dublin side of Brian's career: who were his people and where did they come from. So we were brought up against a most important Viking settlement in Limerick, which not only controlled the estuary but stretched up the Shannon through Lough Derg and into the midlands. She pointed out the difficulty of comparing the relative wealth of the Limerick and Dublin settlements, as there had been a lot of excavations in Dublin but virtually none in Limerick. It had been the intention to do a lot of excavation in Limerick under the umbrella of the planned regeneration, but of course this collapsed with the financial crisis.


Brian Boru, Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle,
original photo by J.-H. Janßen

She identified three important elements in Brian's strategy for gaining power: (i) an alliance with the church, through his holy relations, (ii) straightforward aggression and pillage, which acquired him territory and wealth, and (iii) inter-family marriages to secure, strengthen, and maintain alliances.

The pillage bit put Brian in a position to hire skilled mercenaries and import some Viking military technology into his armies. A byproduct of this pillaging was the export of slaves to as far away as Cordoba in southern Spain.

Cathy made the point that preparations for this year's commemorations should really have started at least 10 years ago with an intensification of research into the whole Brian Boru story, including Clontarf.


Detail from gate (1850) at Brian Boru's Well
Castle Avenue, Clontarf
Note the spelling!

Sources were disparate and difficult. We had, for example, the Cogad, an account of Brian's dynasty written by one of his descendents. It is our only real source for the details of the Battle of Clontarf. Besides having to discount it for its family propaganda slant, it had to be translated from the old Irish. The translation we have dates from the mid 19th century and is seriously contaminated by the resurgent nationalism of that period. There is a need, according to Cathy, for a completely new translation which would attempt to render the meaning, and retain the ambiguities, of the original.

But where are the scholars to do this?

In response to a question from the floor, she estimated that there were at most 100 people in the world currently dealing with old Irish and this was likely to fall as (i) the age profile was quite high, and (ii) a lot of them were in institutions outside the country where, when the current incumbent died or retired, the temptation would be not to replace them, in favour of a business faculty or simply because the subject had become marginal to the interests of the countries concerned.

For those wishing to pursue the subject of the lecture, and the wider one of Brian Boru generally, Cathy has a set of PDF files here.

Two asides:

That marvellous magazine, History Ireland, has brought out a special edition devoted to Brian Boru, available at the best bookshops, €7, at the lectures and by subscription online.

I referred to the Frazer painting in my earlier post.


Link to other 1014 related posts, including two other talks in the series.


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