Skip to main content »

Trinity College Dublin

Battle of Clontarf: Death of an Emperor

Victory came at a heavy price. Many of Brian’s immediate family fell, including his son and heir-apparent Murchad and his nephew Conaing. Later accounts of the battle claim that Brian’s 15-year-old grandson Tairdelbach drowned in a weir, dragging three Vikings with him to their watery graves.

More significantly, the elderly King Brian — ‘the Augustus of the whole of north-west Europe’ in the account of the Annals of Ulster — was also killed. According to very early tradition he was murdered while praying in his tent.

The Lough Derg Sword
11th century
NMI 1988:226

This image is reproduced with the kind permission of the National Museum of Ireland.

Recovered from Lough Derg, near Curraghmore in Co Tipperary in 1988, this sword comes from the heart of Brian’s powerbase. It is a very fine example of an 11th-century sword, made of iron with silver niello and copper alloy decoration. The hilt decoration suggests a date about 50 years after Clontarf but Brian and his nobles could have had elaborate swords such as this.

Brennu-Njáls saga
The Saga of Burnt Njáll
18th century
TCD MS 1002 p 378

The 13th-century Norse tale ends with an account of the Battle of Clontarf, in which the murderers of the eponymous Njáll meet their fate. Far away in Viking-controlled northern Scotland, twelve Valkyries were observed weaving a web of human entrails on a frame made of human heads and weapons. In Norse mythology the Valkyries selected who died in battle; here they predict Brian’s death:

oc munu Irar
angur um bíða
Þat er alldrei mun
ítum firnast.

And the Irish will long suffer from a sorrow that will never grow old for men.

Brian Boru: Ireland’s Warrior King,
Damien Goodfellow
Dublin, 2011
PX-283-132 p 88

Brian’s death at the hands of Brodar, a Viking leader who may have come from the Isle of Man, is depicted in this modern graphic novel. It is narrated in the voice of Gormlaith, who was married to Brian and was the mother of one of his principal enemies at Clontarf, King Sitriuc of Dublin.