1,000-year-old Irish battle could have its roots in old myth of Troy

People dressed as Vikings participating in a reenactment of the Battle of Clontarf.
People dressed as Vikings participating in a reenactment of the Battle of Clontarf.

A key account of a 1,000-year-old battle which came to define Irish identity may actually have been crafted around an ancient myth about Troy, it has been claimed.

Popularly-accepted accounts of the Battle of Clontarf – which was fought on April 23, 1014 – are partly a “pseudo-history” borrowed from an even older event, according to an academic from the University of Cambridge.

In folk history, the battle has been characterised as an epic and violent clash between the army of the Christian Irish High King, Brian Boru, and a combined army of foes, including the Dublin-based Vikings.

The disputed outcome saw the Vikings beaten off, but at huge cost – Brian himself was killed, and became a heroic figure and Irish martyr.

No archaeological remains have been found, and the precise location is disputed.

And according to Maire Ni Mhaonaigh, from St John’s College in Cambridge, much of what is known about Clontarf may have roots elsewhere.

By far the most comprehensive account of what happened at Clontarf has come from a text known as Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, or The War Of The Irish Against The Foreigners.

It was, however, written about a century later, probably at the behest of Brian’s great-grandson.

Through a close study of the text Dr Ni Mhaonaigh found that the imagery, terminology and ideas draw inspiration from a range of earlier sources – in particular, from an 11th century translation of a 5th century account of the battle for Troy.

Ultimately though, the details are likely to remain a mystery, according to her new book – Classical Literature and Learning in Medieval Irish Narrative.

She said: “The casting of Clontarf as a national struggle in which the aged, holy Brian was martyred still defines what most people know about the battle, and it has probably endured because that was what numerous generations of Irish men and women wanted to read.”

Dr Ni Mhaonaigh said: “Academics have long accepted that Cogadh couldn’t be taken as reliable evidence but that hasn’t stopped some of them from continuing to draw on it to portray the encounter.

“What this research shows is that its account of the battle was crafted, at least in part, to create a version of events that was the equivalent of Troy.

“This was more than a literary flourish, it was a work of a superb, sophisticated and learned author.”

Rather than pouring cold water on the millennial celebrations of Clontarf by showing its main account to have been an elaborate piece of story-telling, Dr Ni Mhaonaigh points out that the work bears witness to the cultural achievements of Brian’s successors.

It shows, she said, “his descendants were operating at a cultural level of the highest complexity”.