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The Irish 1 – The Vikings Nil; Was Brian Boru a Benevolent High King or Terrible Tyrant?

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Battle of Clontarf, Wikipedia

Well, it’s Good Friday, and I couldn’t let the day go by without mentioning the Battle of Clontarf, now, could I? The chances are, if you live in Ireland, you’ll be sick of hearing about it by now. But for all those of you who live beyond these vibrant shores, pin back your lugs and listen up, for this is no fanciful fairytale, you know; Brian Boru was a bone fide historical High King of Ireland, and the tale of the Battle of Clontarf is all about power struggle, the cut and thrust of sword and polotics, betrayal and treachery, love and lust… oh,yes, in bucket-loads!

Contrary to popular belief, Brian did not drive the marauding Vikings from Ireland. The Norsemen and Danes had been arriving in Ireland since the late 8th century, long before Brian Boru was born, at first raiding and pillaging, as was their wont. But by the mid 9th century, their temporary encampments had become more permanent fortresses, which in the future would grow into into the cities we know today as Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and Cork. So the Vikings, who were great craftsmen, established their towns, set up trade, inter-married, adopted Irish customs, speech and dress, and were to all intents and purposes, assimilated into Irish culture.

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Brian Boru

So who was Brian Boru?

Brian was one of twelve sons of Cennétig mac Lorcáin, who was a minor King in the north of Munster province. When he died in 951, power passed to Mathgamain, Brian’s older brother. Not content with his small kingdom, Mathgemain set his sights further afield, finally capturing the Rock of Cashel in 964, thus seizing power over the whole of Munster(yep, definitely a bit of a tyrant in there, somewhere.). Unfortunately, he was killed soon after by Máel Muad mac Briain, whereupon Brian Boru assumed his brother’s place.

When Brian eventually gained control of Leinster province in 996, the then High King Máel Sechnaill mac Domnall seemed to recognise that this upstart might just be unstoppable. He made a treaty with Brian, allowing him to keep the south, whilst he himself retained the North. 

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Me looking at a model of Viking Dublin at the National Museum of Archaeology, Dublin.

Meanwhile, the Leinstermen were planning a rebellion against Brian, led by Máel Morda mac Murchada, whom they declared as their new King. Joining forces with Sitric Silkenbeard, who was Morda’s cousin and Viking King of the city of Dublin. Battle was joined at Gleann Máma in 999. It was a fierce and bloody skirmish, in which Brian was victorious. Perhaps surprisingly for a man who had his eyes firmly fixed on the bigger picture, he attempted to ally himself with Silkenbeard, allowing him to keep his Kingship of Dublin, and marrying him to one of his daughters(what happened to the terrible tyrant? Seems more like a benevolent King to me.). At the same time, he took Gormflaith, who was Silkenbeard’s mother and Morda’s sister, to be his wife. Gormfalith had also been married to Sechnaill, the previous HIgh King. She was obviously quite selective about her husbands… It should be noted at this point, that Brian himself had four wives during his life time (lust and power).

In 1002, Sechnaill finally backed down and surrendered to Brian, who then became High King. It took another ten years of battle campaigns, however, before the Ulstermen recognised and accepted his claim to the throne.

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Clontarf Castle

But what about the Battle of Clontarf?

Hold on, I’m getting to that. 

In 1012, that pesky trouble-maker, Morda, rebelled against Brian for the second time. He gained support from one of the lesser Kings of Ulster, but whilst the rest did not fully support Brian, they weren’t keen to bear arms against him, either. They’d been there before, remember, and where did that get them? Poor Morda was forced to hire mercenaries from amongst his Viking brethren settled on Orkney and the Isle of Man. But they weren’t joining the war for love, loyalty or politics, oh no! They were after loot. They landed in Ireland a few days before Easter in the year 1014. 

As his great army rode to meet them, Brian confidently sent out contingents of warriors out under the command of his sons to raid, plunder and burn all Viking settlements along the way(seems like that tyrant thing must be in the blood.). Battle commenced outside the city at Clontarf, which is now a Dublin suburb. It is said the battle raged fiercely all day and half the night, that the men were unable to throw their spears because the air was dense with the flying hair of those cut down; that no man recognised even his own son except by his voice, for they were so covered in blood. 

Although the Viking horde were fierce and brave, they were no match for the Irishmen. Despite this great victory, which won him the right to be High King of all Ireland, Brian Boru was tragically killed that very night. It is unlikely that he went into battle himself, as he would have been very old by this time; the Annals, Ireland’s ancient records, explain that he was 88 years old. One legend claims he was murdered in his tent while he prayed, by one of the escaping Viking renegades named Bródar.

The truth cannot now be known. But it’s that little breath of mystery and intrigue which lends just a touch of legendary Sidhe magic to even Ireland’s known historical leaders; which keeps the story alive, and has people all over Ireland celebrating Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf a thousand years later.

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St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh

Brian Boru’s body was carried to the city of Armagh, where he is said to have been interred in a tomb which lies beneath the walls of St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Love history. Love mythology. LOVE Ireland!

And by the way, Happy Easter everybody!

Competition: Do you want to be the cover designer for the 2014 anthology?

Ali Isaac:

Of Words And Water needs YOU! Would you like to be part of this fantastic charity endeavour?

Originally posted on Of Words and Water:

Are you good at making book covers? Do you want your work exposed to a few thousand people? And would you like to donate a cover and help us raise money for WaterAid?

Can you say yes to all of the above? And are you up for the challenge? Then please e-mail your cover suggestion to iam(at)lenekrog(dot)com. And include a little bit about yourself and your work – maybe a link to your website?

Please send the covers in either jpg, pdf, eps, ai or png. Max. 5 MB.

We need your suggestion by 15 May 2014. 

Once we’ve chosen the three best covers, it is up to our readers to vote for their favourite cover. The one with the most votes wins.

The theme for the 2014 anthology is Many nations, one world. We hope that sparks an idea for a cover, just like it has been an inspiration, more or less loosely, for the authors behind this year’s…

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Would You Eat This?

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In a previous post we talked about Irish Bogs and the things found in them, most interestingly, Bog Bodies and Bog Butter, amongst other things. I took this picture in the Cavan County Museum in Ballyjamesduff, which is only five minutes down the road from where I live. It shows some bog butter in a wooden vessel found in a bog in Co Longford, dating back to medieval times, but there have been even older samples found, going back five thousand years!

Ok, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to be eating this particular dish of bog butter…it’s fossilised for a start, so it would probably break your teeth! Not to mention what the peat might do to the flavour…it’s certainly not turning my taste buds on, I don’t know about yours.  But why did they adopt this curious practice of dumping their lovely freshly churned bit of butter in a bog, anyway?

The most popular theory is that the peat bog was used as a kind of refrigerator to preserve the butter, thus prolonging its shelf life until needed. It is also suggested that it was buried in the bog to keep supplies safe from marauders and thieves. As dairy farming was quite common in those times, I’m more inclined to believe in the former. As with most things ancient and Irish, we just don’t know for sure.

Just another intriguing bit of the puzzle that is Ancient Ireland, which I wanted to share with you. Watch out for some yummy Iron Age recipes coming soon…

 

Why the Iron Age Irish were more sophisticated than Experts would have You Believe.

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I apologise for the poor quality of this picture, but I just wanted to bring something amazing to your attention. We always think of the ancient peoples of this world as being less intelligent than us, inferior to us, more primitive than us, less enlightened than us. If you have read any of my previous posts here, and here, experts would have us believe that life back then was crude and hard, that these people were savage and cruel.

It’s true that bad things happened; mankind has always found ways to make others suffer. It’s no different now; half our world is at war, people abuse each other and take advantage of those who are weaker. Older generations say such things never happened in their day. Nonsense; it was just swept under the carpet and hidden.

But I recently came across something which made my day, and impressed me beyond measure. I have never read the Brehon Laws, but on visiting the Co Cavan Museum in Ballyjamesduff the other day, I came across a board summarising just a morsel of some of their laws.

In para 3 of the image above, you might just be able to make out the words. Basically, the Brehon Laws were saying that it is illegal to satirise, ie mock, belittle, make fun of, anyone who is born with a disability. I was stunned. Does that sound like a primitive backward people who loved to sacrifice their children and Kings?

Food for thought…

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Conor Kelly and The Fenian King

A short film I made to give you a flavour of the second book in my series, The Tir na Nog Trilogy. Hope you like it!

Conor Kelly and The Fenian King really is coming soon…

What’s the point of an eye that doesn’t see?

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My left eye

You can call me Goll from now on. No, I didn’t lose an eye in a sword fight, it was much more boring than that. I got an infection in my left eye, which considering that I’ve been wearing contact lenses for the last thirty years, is pretty good going. It means that I have to revert to my glasses for three weeks while I treat the infection, which isn’t great, because I can’t see a thing with them! So when the optician suggested I try wearing just one contact lense, I thought I’d give it a go.

You have to bear in mind that I am quite severely myopic; -10 in my right, -7 in the left with an astigmatism, and that’s my good eye! But hey-ho, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

What a disaster! I had no depth perception at all. I thought I was putting the spoon in Carys’s mouth at dinner time, but instead I was actually trying to stick it in her cheek! Poor child. And as for driving…no way, Jose! It would be carnage on the roads! Glasses it is then. Or maybe an eye-patch and a contact lense, but then my family wouldn’t want to be seen out with me. A-har, me shipmates…now that’s got legs!

One thing’s for sure, I’ve since developed a grudging respect for old Goll mac Morna. As the killer of Fionn mac Cumhall’s father, and later betraying Fionn himself, he wasn’t exactly top of my christmas card list anyway. To have led the Fianna as Rífhéinni, and to have successfully fought his way through many battles with only one eye is skill and strength and determination I can only admire.

Goll’s birth name was Áedh, (pronounced Ay) meaning ‘fire’, and in combat he was known by the title Flame of Battle… I can just imagine him whirling about the battleground with his long red hair streaming out behind him like flames! His family, the Clan Morna of Connaught, were always feuding with Fionn’s, the Clan Baiscne.

When Fionn’s father, Cumhall (pronounced Koo-all), who was head of the Fianna, abducted Muirna (pronounced Meer-na), the love of his life, High King Cormac mac Airt was not at all pleased and sent Áedh after him. Clan Morna attacked Clan Baiscne at the Battle of Cnucha (Castleknock, Dublin). Despite recieving the grievious wound which robbed him of his eye, he still managed to kill Cumhall and take his place as the leader of the Fianna, known as the Fian-King, or Rífhéinni. He was known thereafter as  Goll, meaning ‘one-eyed’, not quite so distinguished a title as the first one!

Fionn grew up in hiding to keep him safe from the Clan Morna, but when he came of age, he presented himself to Cormac and promised to kill the Fire-Fairy Aillen mac Midhna in return for his birth-right as Fian-King. Cormac agreed, not expecting him to succeed. When he did, Cormac had no choice but to appoint Fionn leader of the Fianna, and Goll reluctantly stepped down.

As time passed, Goll came to respect Fionn, although their relationship was an uneasy one. This did not please the Morna Clan, who still harboured a grudge against the Baiscne. There are many tales of the Fianna in which Goll features. Interestingly, his fate seems to have been inextricably tied with Fionn’s; after rescuing Fionn from danger, Fionn rewards him with his daughter, Cainche, in marriage, although Goll was already married to Scandlach.

Eventually, though, the two men fell out when Goll killed Fionn’s son, Cairell, as the result of an argument which got out of hand. Fearing Fionn’s wrath, Goll hid in a cave with the Baiscne laying siege at its entrance. He refused to come out, and there he died twelve days later from the combined effects of hunger and thirst. Not exactly a hero’s death for poor old Goll!

Swearing revenge for the death of their kinsman, the Morna Clan defected and joined the new High King, Cairpre, who disliked Fionn and the power he had amassed at the head of the Fianna. Battle was joined at Gabhra, which saw the demise of the Fianna and the mysterious disappearance of Fionn mac Cumhall.

 

The Truth about Irish Bog Bodies

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Last summer, I took my sons to the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin. It was a great success; they were amazed by the hordes of ancient gold, fascinated by the Viking swords and longship, but what excited us all the most was the exhibition entitled ‘Kingship and Sacrifice‘.

This display hosts several prehistoric bodies pulled from Ireland’s peat bogs, and other items plumbed from the depths which may or may not be associated with them, such as gold jewellery, head-dresses, weapons, eating utensils and items concerned with corn and milk production. When the Irish decide to do something with their archaeology, it has to be said, they do it very well indeed.

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The mood is sombre, respectful; the lighting subdued. Each body resides resplendent in his own private and personal chamber, which only a few visitors can access at any one time. Large panels relate their stories. The prehistoric past of Ireland’s Kings is conjured up before our eyes with imagination and artistry, whilst we gaze with wonder into the faces of real people who lived and breathed and loved and died thousands of years before us. It’s a spectacular and unforgettable experience.

But how were they so well preserved? Well, it’s all down to the unique habitat of the Irish bog.

The word ‘bog’ is derived from the Irish word bogarch, which means ‘soft’. Peat bog covers 17% of Ireland’s surface, which gives us the third highest proportion of peatland in the world, after Canada and Finland. It takes one thousand years to grow just a one metre depth of bog. The peat itself consists of 95% water, the remainder made up of rotted vegetation, pollen, dust and the like. In Ireland, it has traditionally been cut and dried and burned in the fireplace as turf. It is usually as a result of turf-cutting, that the bog bodies come to light. The cold, acidic, oxygen-free conditions which exist within the peat prevent decay, and act to mummify and preserve the tissues of animal and human bodies.

Around a hundred bodies have been found in our Irish bogs to date, some male, some female, and those of children too. Some were thought to be there by accident, perhaps as a result of falling into the bog and drowning. Others were considered to be formal (and some not so formal) burials, and others appear to be rather more sinister.

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Of these latter bodies, the most famous are known as Cashel Man, who was discovered near Portlaoise in 2011, and at over 4000 years old, is said to be the oldest European bog body ever found with skin intact; Old Croghan Man from Co Offally, and Clonycavan Man from Co Meath. The exhibition also features Gallagh Man from Co Galway, and Baronstownwest Man, from Co Kildare.

These bodies have been analysed in great detail using modern techniques and teams of renowned experts from all over the world. Much has been discovered about the lives they led, and the injuries which caused their deaths. Old Croghan man, for example, was a giant of a man, estimated to have stood approximately 6ft 6ins tall. His soft hands with their well-manicured nails suggest he was a nobleman, a fact which is supported by evidence of a diet consistently dominated by meat. He died somewhere between 362-175BC.

By contrast, Clonycavan man, 2300 years old, was a mere 5ft tall. His diet consisted mainly of grains and plants for the four months prior to his death; before that, he also ate a lot of meat. It is suggested that he may have died in the autumn after a summer diet of fruit, vegetables and grain, before a meat-rich winter diet could be resumed. Interestingly, he had a very distinctive hair style; it was cut to 21/2 cms long at the back, the rest of it 20 cms long, and gathered up into a bunch on top of his head. He also styled it with pine resin which came from trees only found in Spain and southern France, so it would have been expensive to import, suggesting that he too came from wealthy, perhaps noble origins.

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According to the popular press, they all suffered overly violent and gruesome deaths. Old Croghan man, for example, had holes cut through his upper arms through which ropes were inserted to restrain him, after which he was repeatedly stabbed, had his nipples sliced off, and was then cut in half. Clonycavan man was disembowelled, bopped over the head three times with an axe, once across his body, and then had his nipples removed too. Call me cynical, but these gory stories had the makings of  attention grabbing headlines, and sensational punter pulling content.

In his paper, ‘An Archaeological Interpretation of Irish Iron Age Bog Bodies’, Eamonn Kelly, Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum explains it slightly differently.

He claims that Clonycavan man was killed by axe blows to the head and chest, and that he had a 40cm cut to the abdomen which was consistent with disembowelment. Old Croghan man was killed by a stab wound to his chest. He had a defence wound on his arm, which suggests that he may have put his arm up to defend himself against the attack. He was then decapitated, his nipples cut, and his body cut in half at the stomach. The cuts in his arms which were threaded with ropes, he explains as a means of fixing his body to the bottom of the bog. It is unclear in both cases whether the mutilation of the nipples occurred before or after death.

All very gruesome indeed, but he is convinced that “this is absolutely not torture but a form of ritual sacrifice”. The Iron Age King was responsible for the ongoing success of his people, for ensuring the land remained fertile, for the health of livestock and productivity of crops. If any of this failed, he was held responsible for that too, and sacrificed to the Gods in return for better fortune.

Not only that, but it was believed that the King had to be whole and unblemished for his tribe to succeed; we see evidence of this in the mythological story of King Nuada of the Denann, who although he survived the loss of an arm in battle, could no longer remain King because he was no longer whole.

Whilst I respect the work of these experts, I am not convinced by their theories. Archaeologists can only make educated interpretations of what they find. Interpretations, no matter how intelligent or keenly observed, are not facts. In my (amateur enthusiast) opinion, they are very quick to claim ‘ritual’ when they don’t understand something. I have read a lot of mythology, a lot about early history, and followed a lot of archaeology. I am no expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I have enough sense to formulate an opinion of my own.

muirdris

There are various references in mythology to the King’s requirement to be whole. Nuada, as mentioned above, is one. Another is Fergus mac Leite, a King of Ulster, who after a battle with a sea monster, emerged with wounds which twisted his mouth to the back of his head. Mirrors were removed from his home so he could not see his deformity, as such disfigurement would render him ineligible for Kingship. Few were permitted to witness it, those that did were under pain of death never to mention it. This deceit was maintained for seven years before finally word got out.

Kelly explains the significance of the nipple mutilation as putting the affected individual beyond Kingship even in the after life. Why? Because he says sucking the King’s nipples was a sign of submission.

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This is only mentioned twice in early writing, as far as I can see. One instance appears to be related to St Patrick, in his Confessio, where he claims to refuse to ‘suck their breasts’ of the pagan men who commanded the ship on which he escaped from his captivity in Ireland. It has also been claimed that the above mentioned Fergus sealed a deal with the lúporcháin, the tiny sea sprites who tried to abduct him, by sucking nipples.

I was surprised at this; I had read this story (in fact, it features in my third book, Conor Kelly and The Three Waves of Eirean), and don’t remember any such references. Obviously a version I have not seen, and can’t find. It did seem to find favour with a whole host of homo-erotic sites out there in web-land, however, where it is referred to as sughaim sine.  This term does not appear to exist in Irish; the nearest translation would be súghmadh, which means ‘sucking’, and sin, which means ‘teat’.

In any case, the whole concept is something which to me just doesn’t seem to fit; in a society which believed in and revered the feminine aspect, suckling would surely have been seen as a nurturing act, or even a sexual act, but not the negative act of forced submission between a king and his men. As a pagan ritual, I imagine the Christians would have been keen to put an end to it in typical blaze of glory; one would expect, therefore, to find their control measures stamped all over the mythology and early writings. As you can see, it barely gets a mention.

Which brings me to the sacrifice of Kings. In a previous post, I already discussed the role of human sacrifice in ancient Ireland, or rather, the lack of evidence to support such practices. It is my belief that a King already wounded is by that fact rendered less than whole, and therefore does not require further mutilation. If the King was not successful in looking after his people, why would they consider him such a great gift to offer to their Gods? Perhaps they simply murdered him due to his ineffectual rule. Perhaps he wasn’t a King at all, but a rich noblemen who fell foul of a bunch of robbers, was plundered, killed and dumped in the bog where all evidence of the crime was hidden.

What actual proof is there that these were ritual killings? Where is the proof which differentiates these killings from torture and murder? Some valuable items were discovered in the bogs, it’s true, but ancient people have always deposited votive offerings in areas of water, there is nothing unusual about that. The various tribes of the time were continually battling and raiding against each other, mythology and history alike are full of such stories. Who is to say these men weren’t tortured and murdered as prisoners of war? Their vicious wounds may be nothing more than the result of the cut and thrust of battle. That these bogs are situated along the lines of ancient borders only adds credence to the fact that battles may have been fought there.

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In Irish mythology, the only story of human sacrifice concerns a king named Tigernmas. He set up an idol known as Crom Cruach, ordering his people to sacrifice their firstborn child and a third of their grain to it. In a 6th century poem in the Book of Leinster, the effigy was covered in sheets of gold and surrounded by a circle of  twelve stone figures located on the plain of Magh Slécht (now Moysleet) in Co Cavan. Children were killed by hitting their heads against the idol stone, and their blood sprinkled around it.

The story is rife with Christian propaganda, however. Tigernmas and three quarters of his men were said to have mysteriously perished during their devotions to their idol, explained by the Christians as having been killed by their own God. Why would a God murder the very people who were feeding him the blood and grain he required? Fortunately, St Patrick comes to the rescue, striking the stone with his crozier and breaking it into many pieces. Out of it flew the demon, which the Saint subsequently banished to hell. It is worth noting, however, that this story is not mentioned in Patrick’s own writing. If human or Kingly sacrifices were common, one would expect a great many stories like this to fill the ancient records. This was the only one I could find.

Incidentally, a dome-shaped stone figure covered in what are said to be La Téne style carvings, was found in Co Cavan in 1921, broken and partly buried beside a bronze age stone circle near a church called Kilnavert Church. The original name for this site was Rath Slécht. Re-named the Killycluggin Stone, it now resides in the Co Cavan Museum, only five minutes drive from where I live!

As to the truth about Ireland’s bog bodies? I’m sorry, guys, but the truth is, no one really knows…

 

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