The story of the Battle of Clontarf has often been told as that of a great Irish leader driving a foreign enemy - the Danes - out of the country.
At the time of the 900th anniversary of the battle in 1914, this simplified narrative was ripe for politicisation, as we heard from Donal Fallon.
A company of the Irish Citizen Army at Croydon House, Croydon Park, Clontarf, Co. Dublin (the recreation centre of the ITGWU), 1914
Clontarf in 1914: Nationalist commemoration of
the Battle of Clontarf
by Donal Fallon
While the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf has captured the public imagination, previous milestone anniversaries of the iconic moment have likewise had an impact on the populace. In 1914 Irish nationalists organised commemorative events around the theme of Clontarf, and attempted to politicise the historic event in the pages of publications like the Irish Volunteer. Against a backdrop of political uncertainty regarding Home Rule, and with armed volunteers once more appearing on Irish streets, the battle was presented as a definitive victory for a native Irish force over a foreign aggressor.
The nationalist Irish Volunteer newspaper called openly for uniformed Irish men to appear at Clontarf on Easter Sunday, stating that:
Corps throughout the country are eagerly awaiting orders for the big event, and are holding themselves in readiness to send contingents for the fitting celebration of a great National victory. And undoubtedly a Volunteer review will be a fitting and a worthy celebration of Ireland’s victory over the Dane.
An interesting theme that emerged on occasion in the Irish Volunteer and other nationalist publications was the celebration of the assimilation of the Vikings in light of their defeat at the Battle of Clontarf, as Irish nationalists saw it. Thomas McDonagh, in his ‘Marching Song of the Volunteers’, wrote that:
Tired of wayfaring here he found
The welcome due to a valiant foe:
The Viking stock on Irish ground.
Has grown and strongly still shall grow.
In the pages of An Claidheamh Soluis, an editorial soon after the anniversary of the battle outlined a hope that Ulstermen could be won the cause of Ireland, as ‘The Ireland that assimilated the Dane and the Norman should not fail, if opinion were not poisoned by the malicious teachings of the foreigner, to assimilate the Ulsterman.’ The significance of Boru to the Volunteers is clear from the naming of their organised body in Ennis, known as the Brian Boru Corps. It was reported by The Irish Times on 27 May 1914 that the men of the Brian Boru Corps had led a march in the town in celebration of the third reading of the Home Rule Bill, ‘followed by an immense crowd, who cheered John Redmond and Home Rule.’
The year witnessed several commemorations of both the battle and Brian Boru himself. In April, thousands gathered at Kincora, with the Nenagh Guardian proclaiming that 'in a year when we are verging on Home Rule', the rally was a fitting event. The paper noted that:
Never since the days of Brian Boru has world famed Kincora -the birth-place of Ireland's greatest king—come so prominently forward as it did on Sunday last, when thousands of Irishmen of all political and religious beliefs assembled to honour the name of Brian Boru.
The lines between history and contemporary politics were blurred in Kincora, with one speaker informing the crowd if Boru were alive among them 'he would go out for the Irish language and would take part in the Volunteers, and not the Carson Volunteers.' The Volunteers themselves featured in some local commemorations, for example at Fermoy, where a crowd heard from a Reverend chairing proceedings that 'there was no finer example than that of Brian Boru, who, at the head of his army, holding the Crucifix aloft, exhorted his troops to victory in their battle for Faith and Fatherland.'
A writer in the Ulster Herald bemoaned the fact that ‘few throughout the length and breadth of the land’ had marked the anniversary, but did praise the ‘bright, burning fires’ lit in some of the hills of Donegal in honour of Clontarf. The Abbey Theatre in Dublin marked the anniversary with a revival of ‘Kincora’ by Lady Gregory, which was generally well received by the media.
Clontarf and Boru continued to play an important role in the ideology of Irish separatism after 1914. Seamus Daly, a member of the Irish Volunteers, recalled Thomas McDonagh addressing him and others on Holy Thursday 1916, remembering preparing weapons at Clontarf for the insurrection ahead. McDonagh ‘reminded us we were standing on historic ground in Clontarf where Brian Boru had defeated the Danes in 1014’. It seems to some Irish nationalists, Boru was as much a part of their heritage as Tone.