The Battle of Clontarf celebrated its 1000-year anniversary in 2014. Festivals popped up all over Dublin, celebrating all things Viking and Viking-Age Ireland. The story of this battle and its main players is quite complex and shrouded in innuendo and mystery—as you might expect from a complex political/military drama from the eleventh century.
On April 23, 1014, Brian Boru, then the High King of Ireland, led his army against the forces of Vikings and several other Irish competitors. The night before the battle, the Boru army is said to have camped in Kilmainham, near what is now the Irish Museum of Modern Art in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. The next day, the battle raged from sunrise to sunset, mostly in the northeastern part of the city—which bore very little resemblance to the sandy flat you see today.
Very little physical evidence of the battle remains. Contrary to popular myth, weapons and armor weren’t usually abandoned or buried at battle sites for archaeologists to discover. Historians have done their best to piece together the events of the day based on vague or exaggerated accounts. One account has it that the battle was ended by a heavy tide rushing inland at sunset, separating army units, drowning heavily-armored soldiers, and causing havoc and confusion. This was confirmed when the tide table of that day was calculated by historical almanac software: very strong high tides at approximately sunrise and sunset.
In the end, Brian Boru’s army was victorious, although the High King himself was slain. As a result of the battle, the invading Vikings lost control of much of their Irish land, and power was more evenly distributed to other Irish kings. The battle symbolizes the native Irish victory over a foreign invading force, and thus the tale of Brian Boru lived on throughout the long control of the British over Ireland.
Today, Boru is honored in various ways throughout the city. In the main domed entryway of Dublin City Hall, look up to see the bearded High King on horseback rallying his troops the night before the attack; in the Trinity College Library, the harp that served as the model for Ireland’s national emblem—and the Guinness logo—is nicknamed “Brian Boru’s Harp,” even though it wasn’t built until several centuries after his death.
A gorgeous, wide walking trail and bike path follows most of Dublin’s northeast coast from modern-day Clontarf almost to the Howth Peninsula. The best stretch is from near the Clontarf Road DART Station to the wooden bridge at the south end of North Bull Island, but the trail can be joined and enjoyed anywhere on its sizable stretch. On a sunny day, the sand and the exotic palm trees will almost make you feel transported to a tropical paradise—almost.
Along the trail, look for signboards tracking the Battle of Clontarf Heritage Trail. The maps point out various historical and modern highlights in Clontarf—including possible specific locations of pivotal moments of the famous battle. If you can, try to walk the trail at high tide (check the local, current tide tables at www.tide-forecast.com/locations/Dublin-Ireland/tides/latest), as the view of the Docklands, the city, and the bay is so much more pleasant when the sea is, well, present.
Dublin in Detail: The Battle of Clontarf is an excerpt from The Frugal Guide: Dublin, a totally free eBook guide to the great Irish capital by Cory Hanson. Find out more about the book, and download your free copy in your choice of multiple formats, on the Frugal Guide page here on Five Suitcases.