Battle On Ossory’s Plain
The Battle of Clontarf was fought on Good Friday – 23rd of April 1014. It is generally recorded as a great Irish victory by the home team under Brian Boru against the Danes. This epic is captured beautifully by the Kilkenny poet William Kenealy.
Stand ye now for Erin’s glory! Stand ye now for Erin’s cause!
Long ye’ve groaned beneath the rigour of the Northmen’s savage laws.
What though brothers league against us? What, though myriads be the foe?
Victory will be more honoured in the myriad’s overthrow.
It came at a price as aside from the death of Brian in battle, his son and heir Morrogh and his son Torlogh were also killed. Not all Irish were pleased with the victory least of all Mac Giolla Phadraig (Fitzpatrick) of Ossory. Brian in his famous tours of Ireland always made Ossory his last port of call on his campaigns. He was the first Irishman to have a surname Boru meaning tribute as he forced all other rulers to deliver up to him their cattle as demanded. One could say that the Ossorymen harboured a grudge against him.
They resolved therefore to ambush the Dalcassions ( the name given to Brian’s troops) on their return to Munster. The exact location of the conflict is not known – most likely at Galmoy or on Bealach Gabhran. The latter the Gowran Way was the traditional avenue of approach from Leinster to Ossory and thence to Munster.
Fitzpatrick, Lord of Ossory, had vastly more troops than the Munstermen. The latter had barely sufficient to convey their Clontarf wounded home. The historian A M Sullivan wrote ‘in this extremity the wounded soldiers entreated that they might be allowed fight with the rest’. The tactic used was to cut wooden stakes and have them driven into the ground. The wounded men were then tied to and supported by the upright stake a weapon placed in their hands. Beside each of the supported warriors was put a sound man in the ranks. They were all commanded by Donogh O’Brien. The pale and emaciated, playing their part against the flower of Ossory’s men. They grasped their lances and swords and waited for the enemy attack. Thomas Moore commemorates these heroics thus
Remember our wounded companions, who stood
In the day of distress by our side:
When the moss of the valley grew red with their blood,
They stirred not, but conquered and died.
The sun that now blesses our arms with its light
Saw them fall upon Ossory’s plain:
Oh! Let him not blush, when he leaves us to-night, To find that they fell there in vain.
The heroics of the Munstermen might explain that do or die spirit which we see exemplified so often in our own time by the great Munster rugby team albeit augmented by a sturdy Ossoryman.
We gather that the Ossorians were victorious however. We know that the High Kingship of Ireland reverted to Malachy – he of the collar of gold- for the next eight years. AM Sullivan wrote ‘Malachy Mor – well worthy of his title ‘the great’ – the good, the magnanimous, the patriotic, and brave king, whom Brian had deposed, was unanimously recalled to the throne after Brian’s death.
As for the O’Briens it can truly be said their days of greatness ended on Ossory,s plain. Donogh O’Brien, never acknowledged as Ard Ri was driven from even his Munster sovereignty by his own nephew, Torlogh. Aged, broken, and weary, he sailed for Rome, where he entered a monastery and ended his life ‘in penance’, as the old chronicles say. It is said he took with him to Rome the crown and the harp of his father, the illustrious Brian and presented them to the Pope. We know that the harp found its way back and is to this day to be seen in Trinity College Library.