This month, a little more than ten centuries past, a great battle marred what should have been the holiest time in Christendom — Easter, and the celebration of Man’s salvation through the death and rebirth of Christ. But, on the broad plains outside the walls of Norse-held Dubhlinn, near the fishing weir known then as Chluain Tarbh, peace was in short supply. As Good Friday dawned (April 23rd in that year, the Year of Our Lord 1014), Christian faced pagan in what would echo through eternity as the final showdown of the Old Ways versus the New, with the heart and soul of the green isle of Ériu — Ireland — hanging in the balance.
The Battle of Clontarf, as it’s called today, was the final act in a long-simmering feud between the High King, Brian mac Cennétig — remembered as the good King Brian Boru — and his rebellious vassal, King Maelmorda of Leinster, who was abetted by his sister’s son, King Sitric Silkbeard of Dubhlinn, and his Norse allies.
That spring, Brian mac Cennétig maneuvered his forces into what would doubtless be a long-term siege of Dubhlinn, a tactic he’d used with great success in the past. The alliance of Dubhlinn and the Norse of Mann, Orkney, and the motherland had no permanence; they needed a victory, and they needed it fast. Bródir, who was jarl of the Manx reavers, took the omens:
Bródir asked by sorcery how the fight would go, but the answer ran thus, that if the fight were on Good Friday King Brian would fall but win the day; but if they fought before, they would all fall who were against him. — The Saga of Burnt Njal.
Thus was it decided: fall fair or fall foul, the rebel King of Leinster would lead his forces out on the one day Brian mac Cennétig would be loathe to spill blood: Good Friday.
In A Gathering of Ravens, Grimnir’s quest for vengeance leads him into the morass of Irish politics; but he is more than a mute witness to Clontarf. In a fashion that has become rather typical for him, he becomes embroiled in the heart of the fray:
From the northern end of the plain of Chluain Tarbh, the three divisions of the High King’s army moved into position. The sun rose on their left hand, its golden light casting long shadows across the folds of the earth; it was a brilliant morning, with streamers of cloud drifting across a cornflower-blue sky, in sharp contrast to the fresh green of the plain. The stench of yesterday’s burning still hung in the air, but a freshening breeze off the sea helped drive the stink of it inland. Across this idyllic landscape, the war-march of eight thousand men shook the foundations of the earth.
The Dalcassians anchored the Irish left against the gray-green sea, those dark-eyed sons of Thomond whose axe-play was unrivalled, even among the Danes; they followed Turlough mac Murrough into battle – though only fifteen summers, already his reputation was such that his father and grandfather were confident of his ability to lead the ferocious war-bands of Dal Cais.
Murrough himself commanded the center division, the clansmen of Connacht and of Munster – half-wild fighters in wolf skins and rough homespun who relished the coming spear-grab the way other men relished a country dance; among them strode the Uí Ruairc of Lough Gill and their chief, Cormac, who howled and clashed sword on shield with reckless abandon.
On the far Irish right, inland from the sea, came companies of Norsemen from Corcaigh and Hlymrekr – mail-clad sons of the North who sported crosses rather than pagan symbols; alongside them marched shock-headed Galloglas mercenaries from Alba, who wore quilted jerkins and steel caps and carried long Danish axes. Domnall mac Eimen was their chief and he strode forward in grim silence. But of the Meath-men and their treacherous king, Malachy, there was no sign.
Grimnir walked alone. Around him, men shouted and cursed, bolstering their courage. Brazen horns howled; drums pounded like the pulse of some great war-beast, stretching and making ready to rip its victim to shreds. As he came on, Grimnir glared at the mustering enemy across the plain in search of a sign as to where his foeman might be.
Thousands of mailed reavers poured from ships drawn up on the north bank of the Liffey and on the beaches of Dubhlinn Bay, near the fishing weir at the mouth of the Tolka; they formed two divisions that spread across the plain to the old wooden bridge, whose timbers groaned beneath the weight of the division that hurried across from Dubhlinn.
There. Grimnir’s visage twisted with a grin of savage delight as he spied the ancient sigil of the Spear-Danes of Hróarr amid the banners of Dubhlinn: a dirty white scrap of cloth sporting a crude black hand. Under it marched the hunched and twisted giant, Bjarki Half-Dane, a long, broad-bladed sword naked on his shoulder. A red rage washed over Grimnir; he loosed a frenzied howl that pierced even the din of the assembling hosts.
The Norse of Dubhlinn and the rebel Gaels of Leinster formed their battle array on the right, their serried ranks ready to face the iron axes of Corcaigh and Hlymrekr; Maelmorda stood among the fianna of Leinster, bellowing threats and shaking his great spear at the High King’s army, his courage nailed to his spine with a mead-horn.
The enemy center was the demesne of Sigurðr of the Raven Banner, whose Orkneymen stood shoulder to mail-clad shoulder with their cousins from the Hebrides and champions drawn from all the lands of the North: Hrafn the Red, Prince Olaf of Norway, Thorsteinn of the Danemark, Ámundi the White, Thorwald Raven, and many more, besides. Sigurðr gleamed in a gold-scaled corselet as he took his place at the point of a broad fighting wedge.
Hard against the sea that was their life’s blood gathered the Manx reavers of Bródir, eager to pit their axes against those of the Dalcassians. Their fell-handed chief stood forth in his dwarf-forged mail and called on his men to drag a Gaelic prisoner forward; there, in sight of the Irish host, Bródir drew his knife and sacrificed the man to the glory of Odin. Howls of rage washed over the sunlit plain of Chluain Tarbh.
Both the sagas of the Norse and the annals of the Irish tell how the battle was joined following the traditional meeting of enemy champions.
Up and down the Irish front, the death of the champions was like an axe cutting the yoke off a mighty beast – a beast that pawed the earth with iron claws as its great muscles hurled it forward, into the face of its prey. A deafening shout went up – the barrán-glaed, the warrior’s cry – and it rocked the foundations of heaven. From the first kern of the Dal Cais on the left to the last thegn of Hlymrekr on the right, the divisions of the High King of Ériu surged forward like a storm-driven tide to crash into a bulwark of steel.
Trumpets howled and shrieked over the din, but not to relay orders. This was no game of thrones where generals sacrificed and maneuvered on the backs of their soldiers; this was the most primal sort of conflict – Odin’s weather, the red chaos of slaughter – where men stood breast to breast and shield to shield, and dealt the same blows they took in kind.
Spears cracked and shivered. Shields split. Links of woven mail parted beneath the edge of an axe. Swords flashed in the rising dust, and blood dampened the earth. Thunderous cries mixed with piteous howls. Men struck and reeled; the dying clasped the knees of the living like a lover refusing to be put aside for another. The air – so bright and clear only moments before – reeked now of iron scraping iron; it was redolent with the coppery stench of spilled gore, with the hot stink of vomit, and with the fetor riven bellies.
Grimnir was in his element. Laughing, he came at the Norse low and fast; his axe sang clear of its moorings, lashed out, and rebounded from the face of a limewood shield.
Next . . .
Well, to see what happens next, you’ll have to buy the book — though to see what happened historically is as easy as pointing your browser to Google and asking it to show you the Saga of Burnt Njal, or even the Wikipedia article for Clontarf if you’re into brevity . . .