The woman who killed Brian Ború

2014 sees the 1000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf. Brian Ború of late and glorious memory saw off the Vikings (but died doing it) and we all lived happily ever after, right?

brian boru

Eh, no but that’s a story for another day.

Anyway, back to Brian. He had a wife who has been all but forgotten about and yet she supposedly played an enormously important part in the politics around 1014. In fact, she is blamed for the Battle which killed Brian but made Ireland safe from Viking depredations according to various sources. Her name was Gormlaith and she was the daughter of the King of Leinster Murchad Mac Finn. What was she like? Your guess is as good as mine. She is supposed to have been beautiful/desirable etc but with a bit of an evil edge.

warrior woman

Njal’s Saga in the thirteenth century called her ‘the fairest of all women, and best gifted in everything that was not in her own power, but it was the talk of men that she did all things ill over which she had any power‘. Oh yeah and she was supposed to have had red hair (Danger!!)

So she was beautiful and deadly – yes that old trope rears its head once again in a depiction of a medieval woman but I think it would be fair to imagine that Gormlaith could take care of herself politically. She did have a habit of marrying powerful kings, so political machinations would have been an essential skill.

Her marital history (in an age of secular-law led marriages) was referred to as her ‘three leaps‘. Her first husband was probably Amlaíbh Cuarán, the Norse king of Dublin and he was a lot older than her. We don’t know dates of birth of course but Gormlaith died in the 1030s and this marriage took place in the 970s so, it can be pretty much worked out that she was very young and he was an old man. He retired to Iona in 980.


She had a son by this marriage and his name was Sitric (Silkbeard) a famous king of Dublin whose name and image are flogged to visitors to the capital still.

Her second husband would seem to have been Brian Ború and her third was possibly to Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill maybe after she and Brian were divorced. Divorce and multiple marriages were options available to people (especially the noble class) in Gaelic society.  So she was the daughter of a king and she married kings…story of a thousand medieval lives I know. But this one, this woman is different. She has been blamed for the death of the greatest king Ireland has ever had!

Her notoriety comes from her role in the build up to one of the defining moments of Irish history, the Battle of Clontarf. So what was that all about? Well, it’s complicated and it’s about jockeying for power within Ireland in a land of many kingships and it’s about new cultures (Hiberno-Norse) rubbing against old ones (Gaelic)and so on.

Essentially in 1013, Mael Mordha (Gormlaith’s brother) the king of Leinster went into revolt against Brian who claimed a type of overlordship over him and joined forces with the Vikings in Ireland, led by Sitric of Dublin. Gormlaith’s brother and son attacked her ex-husband. Together, they attacked the kingdom of Mael Sechlainn of Meath who summoned the help of King Brian and a battle took place at Clontarf in Dublin. Eventually Brian’s army drove the Vikings back towards the sea. Here is what the CogadhGaedhail re Gallaibh says about it


It was at the full tide the foreigners came out to fight the battle in the morning, and the tide had come to the same place again at the end of the day when the foreigners were defeated; and the tide had carried away their ships from them, so they had not at last any place to fly to, but into the sea; after the mail-coated foreigners had all been killed by the Dal Cais….and the foreigners were drowned in great numbers by the sea, and they lay in heaps and in hundreds’.

Brian himself was murdered in his tent. A period of relative peace followed where the Gaelic kings and the Hiberno-Norse rulers managed to carve out a co-existence of sorts.

Gormlaith has been blamed for the whole thing. Forget the build up of tension, the political flurries leading up to it, the political plotting…no, this is all down to a woman feeling rejected apparently.

In Njal’s Saga her part in the lead up to battle at Clontarf is seen as very significant. She is represented as scheming with her son, Sitric. In the Saga, Gormlaith is presented as a sort of Lady MacBeth, controlling the actions of her son and continuously urging him to kill Brian and she is blamed for sending him to Earl Sigurd of Orkney to seek support. When Sitric was forced to promise the earl not only the kingship of Ireland but also marriage to his mother in return for such support, Gormlaith was said to be delighted (showing enthusiasm for marriage and sex was, of course, unseemly). Moreover she also told her son to form a similar pact with two other powerful Viking leaders moored off the Isle of Man and to also promise her hand to one of them. (obviously she was calculating that not everyone could survive a battle).

She also can be found in Irish literature. In one instance (in the Cogadh) she is described as taunting her brother (the King of Leinster) for accepting gifts from her ex, Brian Ború, and of throwing one such gift, a silken tunic into the fire. Interestingly she also states that Brian’s offspring will outstrip those of her brother in power. Seeing as she is said in some sources to have had a son with Brian, Donnchad, this is enlightening about the strength of Gormlaith’s continuing identification with her birth family. In Gaelic society, a woman’s ties with her natal family were never fully severed after marriage and Gormlaith’s behaviour here illustrates this very vividly.

Why did she want to cause a war?

Well, the answer according to the Saga is that she had become so angry at Brian after their divorce that she wanted him dead. Her thirst for revenge is contrasted to that of her ex-husband who is portrayed as being far more Christian (i.e.good) and so, I think, the reasons assigned to her must be taken with an extra-large dose of salt. She is depicted as a devil-woman, out of control and giving in to violent emotion. She is a cipher, a literary device and if she did actually get involved in politics in 10th and 11th century Ireland then her real reasons remain hidden. In the sources where she can be found, one thing is clear-a woman such as she needs an atavistic reason to get involved in politics and war and thus, act like a man. She can’t possibly just be clever or desperate enough to compete with the big boys can she? Remember her family was at war with each other, I imagine her behavioural options consisted of trying to stay alive in the most beneficial way possible. When reading the Saga it is noticeable that she is portrayed as the anti-Brian; the evil Queen to his saintly King and furthermore she is associated with pagan elements in the Saga. She is an independent force and so is frightening and desirable all at the same time. By goading men to violence, by being portrayed as a sexual being are there shades of the Morrigan and Medb in her depiction? She seems to incorporate some of their attributes, her beauty, her wantoness, her destructiveness – it is a potent mix.


Beautiful and Evil Queen/Goddess or Eternal Scapegoat?

You decide.



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The Irish Merlin (with a dash of Arthur thrown in)

I sometimes teach on magic in the Middle Ages and I continue to be fascinated by a man who is not at all well known but has been characterised by some as Ireland’s own Merlin. A fourteenth century (c. 1338-1398) nobleman, politician, poet and (supposedly) adept of the Dark Arts. His name was Earl Gerald FitzGerald the Earl of Desmond (a large chunk of southern Ireland) and he, an Anglo-Irish lord, wrote his poetry in Irish. The Irish know him as Gearóid Iarla and he was an admired writer. 

Here is a translation of what is probably his most famous poem, Mairg adeir olc ris na mnáibh or Against Blame of Women

Speak not ill of womenkind
‘Tis no wisdom if you do,
You that fault with women find
I would not be praised of you.

Sweetly speaking, witty clear
Tribe most lovely to my mind,
Blame of women I hate to hear
Speak not ill of womenkind.

Bloody treason, murderous act
Not by women were designed.
Bells o’erthrown nor churches sacked
Speak not ill of womenkind.

Bishop, King upon his throne,
Primate skilled to loose and bind
Sprung of women every one
Speak not ill of womenkind.

For a brave young fellow
Hearts of women oft have pinned,
Who would dare their love to wrong?
Speak not ill of womenkind.

Paunchy greybeards never more
Hope to please a woman’s mind,
Poor young Chieftains they adore
Speak not ill of womenkind.

So, a man well-disposed to liking the ladies and versed, it would seem, in courtly love. Culturally, he was also heavily influenced by his Gaelic neighbours and kin (his family intermarried with the Gaelic Irish and he was surrounded by Gaelic Irish retainers and servants). Poetry was an acknowledged art form in the Gaelic world and also a powerful weapon. It was believed, for example, that a wronged poet’s satire could exact physical harm on a target (including death).  Poetry could be used as a vehicle for magic and poets were both revered and feared.

This brings me on to the magical aspects of Earl Gerald’s story. He was supposedly a great magician and had a room in his principal castle  (possibly Lough Gur) that was used for sorcery.


Legends abound about his exploits. It was said that he could jump in and out of a bottle. That he could shape-shift and, very interestingly, that his mother was an Irish goddess, Áine. Close to Lough Gur is Knockainey which was a place sacred to the goddess who was a sovereignty goddess of Munster (the region in which the Desmond lordship lay). Some folk tales say that he, along with Black David FitzGerald and Donall O Donnchu learned magic in a school run by the devil. Popular legend had it that Gerald eventually disappeared from one of his Munster castles (supposedly because his wife saw him performing sorcery and expressed such screaming dismay that he instantly disappeared. Apparently his shape-shifting involved some very disturbing shapes). The story is that one day he will return, in the hour of Ireland’s greatest need (much like Arthur for Britain) and that he is magically alive under Lough Gur where, once a year, he emerges on a white horse (a classic fairy motif) and can be glimpsed by those brave enough to wait and have a look. Interestingly folklore in County Louth, on the east coast of Ireland, holds that Gerald and his knights lie asleep in a hill and that only a six-fingered man can wake them up when Ireland needs them.

I always think of Inigo Montoya when I ponder that!

Ireland awaits…




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The Abelard and Heloise of Ireland – sort of

One of the most beautiful and heart-felt poems ever written in the vast corpus of Irish literature was (reputedly) written by a woman. Her name was Liadan and the poem she wrote tells of her lost love, another poet, a man called Cuirithir. The poem is called Comrac Liadaine ocus Cuirithir (The Meeting of Liadan and Cuirithir) and has been dated to the 9th or 10th century. The poem describes how Liadan was torn between Cuirithir’s love and serving God. And, yes, it’s a medieval love story hence the ‘love of God’ theme. It’s a story that is compared to that of Abelard and Heloise but, as Abelard has always appeared to me as a craven sort of soul, I get the comparison but don’t fully welcome it.

Anyway this (almost) love story is the story of a woman’s difficulties when it comes to choosing between earthly and spiritual love. The poem reflects the difficulties of reconciling desire and duty for a woman; of choosing between a solitary but welcome path (as a poet and intellectual serving God) and a path shared (as a cherished wife and mother with a physically and intellectually compatible man). For a female poet like Liadan, the choice was undoubtedly a difficult one.  Let’s not forget, she was a writer. She was a woman used to composition and the time needed for that. At any time (and especially in early medieval Ireland) life as a wife and mother would have spelt an end to her creativity, her need to express herself through poetry.

Or she could choose marriage to a fellow poet. It is unlikely that his creative juices would have been dried up by marriage and children.  I can imagine her married to him, seething with resentment and frustration, churning butter, holding a baby, embroidering clothes (a very important job in medieval Ireland) staring at her husband as he gets ready for a ‘poetic tour’ and leaves her and all her creativity behind. It’s hard to believe that she didn’t also envisage a similar type of scenario but we are told that she did agree to marry Cuirithir but put off the wedding until after she finished her ‘poetic tour’ – a last flourish of her talent maybe? However, she is said to have become a nun (or taken a vow of chastity) on her return after which he visited her. He also took a vow of chastity, in despair at his lost love and in the hope they could still be in some way together. Following this both poets put themselves under the spiritual guidance of St. Cummine who gave them various tasks it seems in a bid to be ‘soul friends’ rather than lovers. One of them was to be put in bed with a novice between them to make sure that nothing happened. It seems that the saint was unaware that Liadan had taken the veil and the wannabe lovers found this task ‘difficult’. Eventually they were allowed to speak but not to meet and eventually Cuirithir went on a pilgrimage. It seems he was probably banished by his saintly mentor for asking could he and Liadan meet. When she, broken-hearted, followed him, he sailed away and she died on the stone on which he prayed. Later St. Cummine placed the stone over her grave as a marker. Small comfort for lost love 😦

Excerpts from Comrac Liadaine ocus Cuirithir

Without pleasure

the deed that I have done;

The one I loved I have vexed.

It were madness

not to do what he wished

Were it not for fear of the king of Heaven.

Not profitless

to him was that which he desired,

To reach past pain to Paradise.

A small thing

vexed Cuirithir against me,

My gentleness to him was great.

i am Liadan;

I loved Cuirithir,

It is true as is said.

A roar of fire

has split my heart;

For certain, without him, it will not live.

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