Photo: Anthony Murphy (Mythical Ireland). The Battle of Tara took place in the open fields surrounding this hill.
I briefly mentioned The Battle of Tara in my last blog post, and I thought I might want to expand upon the importance of it a bit. It took me months of reading, re-reading, creating family trees in a notebook, and developing a detailed chronology to understand the political maneuvering that took place during this time period, and I have a new-found respect for any historian working in medieval Ireland. Kudos to you...
This battle was an important turning point in the power relationship between the Irish and the Foreigners (the Irish name for the Vikings). For two hundred years, the Vikings pillaged up and down the river systems in Ireland and along the coasts as well. They established cities and controlled their important trade markets. (Dublin was founded by Vikings, as was Limerick and Waterford.) They settled in numbers around those cities as well, and owned land and intermarried with local families, both royal and common. The Foreigners took untold numbers of Irish women and girls and sold them into slavery throughout the Viking world. And they inserted themselves into the chaotic and complex political world of competing kingships and regional alliances.
Hundreds of Irish kings held large and small tuaths (kingdoms) in Ireland at the time, and the kaleidoscope of ever-shifting alliances, competition, and enmity with each other during this period did not allow for a unified defense by the Irish against these Foreigners. Not until the Battle of Tara.
The lead up to the battle was complex. There were two key players: Máel Sechnaill (pronounced "mell sheknal") and Olaf Cuaran.
Máel Sechnaill was a young king (31) of Mide (the area to the center of the island, north east of Dublin). He had only been king for a few years when the long-time high king Domnall uí Níall (Máel Sechnaill's uncle) abdicated and went to a monastery at Armagh to live out his days (he died shortly after). Máel Sechnaill was from a royal line of the Uí Néill dynasty (ruling northern Ireland) who had, for some time, dominated the title of Ard Ri -- the High Kingship -- with its seat at the Hill of Tara. He wasn't untested in battle, but he was relatively inexperienced. Relative to the Viking king Olaf Cuarán that is.
Olaf Cuarán was the Foreign king of Dublin. He was also Máel Sechnaill's step-father. At 53, he had been involved in Irish political life for many years. He made alliances through two marriages, and saw both of those alliances fall apart. His first wife Dunflaith was the sister of Domnall uí Níall (see above) and Máel Sechnaill's mother (by a previous marriage), but that did not secure peace between the north, Mide, and Dublin. In fact, Domnall and Olaf fought bitterly for many years, brothers-in-law, and late in the the 970's Olaf Cuaran murdered Domnall's two adult male children and heirs in a wedding procession. When Dunflaith died, probably in childbirth, Olaf married Gormflaith, daughter of Murchad mac Finn, another regional king. Gormflaith was a teenager at the time of their marriage, but widely considered to be the most beautiful woman in Ireland. She bore him at least two children, perhaps three, by the time of the Battle of Tara. Her relatives proved to be unruly and combative against Olaf's interests as well, and the alliances between their families fell apart almost as soon as the marriage was made.
Olaf's ire was not only directed at his brother-in-law. He spent much of the 970's harassing and battling with other kings in Leinster (central/eastern Ireland) and Mide, vying for better trade advantages and access to land and power. He had a long history of capturing enemy royal family members, ransoming them off (if they were lucky) or killing them. A few months before the Battle of Tara, Olaf Cuarán captured the Leinster king Domnall Claen. He also captured Domnall's son Broen when Broen attempted to rescue his father.
This capture was made even more interesting because Domnall Claen was Gormflaith's father's murderer. Domnal Claen was said to have killed Murchad in cold blood (not in battle) in some sort of vengeful rage about which we have no details. Gormflaith had to have been quite happy that her husband held her father's murderer as a prisoner. To me, it seems likely that she may have had a hand in it. I will do a whole other post on Gormflaith later. But for now I will say that I am quite sure she was not just sitting in her room weaving while all of the intrigue swirled around her.
Both sides knew that this kidnapping of the Domnall Claen meant war, but the Leinster leaders could not openly amass an army for fear that their King would be killed. In secret, they gathered an army of allies -- an unprecedented alliance in such a fractured political arena -- north of the city. Olaf must have not known this was happening, because he didn't kill Domnall or Broen in retribution. But Olaf had his own plans. He must have sensed that the Irish were plotting or that he had an advantage, so he amassed an army by calling in allies in the Hebrides and Orkneys and snuck the men into Dublin, probably on merchant ships.
In June of 980, both sides readied their armies and met near the Hill of Tara, about a day's ride north-west of Dublin. This hill was the traditional and mythical seat of Irish kingship, and so the choice of location was purposeful and symbolic, probably Máel Sechnaill's decision. At the end of the day, the Viking army was routed. The annals describe it as being a bloodbath. Olaf's son Ragnall (the lead commander) was killed. Máel Sechnaill then surrounded Dublin and took control of it, freed the all of the slaves, and then pillaged all of the amassed wealth in the city and burned much of it to the ground. Domnall Claen managed to survive, but Olaf had killed his son Broen in the lead up to the battle. Olaf was sent to a monastery in Iona and died soon after. Gormflaith married Máel Sechnaill and he took in and raised her children with Olaf and they had children of their own. Máel Sechnaill was now Ard Ri -- the High King of Ireland. But not for long, because Brian Boru, a powerful king in the south of the island, had other ideas about who should have that title.
Even though the much more famous Battle of Clontarf (in 1014) has been traditionally seen as the final downfall of Viking power in Ireland, it was really the Battle of Tara that brought it to a close.
From left to right: A computer recreation The Hill of Tara; A map of the battle's location; a map of the entire complex of structures on The Hill of Tara
by Marie Goodwin