900 years later: how nationalists adopted Brian Boru in 1914
The ‘Irish Volunteer’ newspaper, among others, presented the Battle of Clontarf as a glorious victory for a native Irish force against a foreign foe
First edition: the Irish Volunteer was loaded with references to Clontarf and the “struggle against the Danes”
In 1914, against the backdrop of the Home Rule question and with Irish Volunteers once more parading on the streets, nationalists used the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf for propaganda, through public commemoration and political output in publications such as the Irish Volunteer . They presented the battle as a glorious victory over a foreign foe and used it to give a historical narrative to the new Irish Volunteer movement.
The first edition of the Irish Volunteer newspaper, which appeared on February 7th, 1914, was loaded with references to Clontarf. The struggle against “the Danes”, as the paper termed the Viking presence, was arguably every bit as significant as more recent republican insurrections.
Sir Roger Casement contributed an article in which which he referred to Clontarf as “one of the really great events in our history of depression”, and the newspaper called for uniformed men at Clontarf on Easter Sunday 1914, noting in its March 28th edition 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.”
There was some opposition to this idea from within the movement, such as the response of “Conan Maol”, the alias of PJ O’Shea, a week later. It was premature for the Volunteers to appear at Clontarf, he said, noting: “It will be mainly a splash of mud oratory by speakers whom Brian would not understand and who know little of him and his times, nor of the events which led up to the great battle.”
Brian’s significance to the Volunteers is clear from the name of their group in Ennis: the Brian Boru Corps. The Irish Times reported on May 27th, 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”.
Winning over Ulstermen
An editorial in An Claidheamh Soluis , the Gaelic League newspaper, soon after the anniversary of the battle hoped that Ulstermen could be won over to the Irish cause, 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 who researched Ireland speaking the Gaelic, and not the Saxon tongue”.
The year 1914 saw several commemorations of Brian and the Battle of Clontarf. In April thousands gathered at Kincora, one of his principal strongholds. The Nenagh Guardian proclaimed 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; one speaker told the crowd that if Brian were alive among them “he would go out for the Irish language and would take part in the Volunteers, and not the Carson Volunteers”.
Admiration wasn’t restricted to nationalists. A year after the anniversary, in 1915, The Irish Times reported a recruitment sergeant with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers telling a crowd at Dún Laoghaire – then Kingstown – that he was a Clontarf man, like Brian, and that “he thought Boru would have made a splendid recruiting officer, and he wished they had him today”.