The Battle of Clontarf: How a bloody conflict becomes entertainment

Opinion: In the Age of Drones, modern sport – like diplomacy itself – may be the conduct of old-fashioned war by other means

‘The re-enactment of the Battle of Clontarf was a jolly, well-organised family event,  but for a queasy moment I wondered what on earth I was doing there. After all, some accounts say that nearly half the population of Dublin lay dead or badly maimed after the conflict.’ Above,  Kenneth Grundtmann and David Wittenburg from the Frederikssund Vikingespil Theatre & Festival in Dublin last week. Photograph: Alan Betson

‘The re-enactment of the Battle of Clontarf was a jolly, well-organised family event, but for a queasy moment I wondered what on earth I was doing there. After all, some accounts say that nearly half the population of Dublin lay dead or badly maimed after the conflict.’ Above, Kenneth Grundtmann and David Wittenburg from the Frederikssund Vikingespil Theatre & Festival in Dublin last week. Photograph: Alan Betson

Fri, Apr 25, 2014, 12:01

When and how do old battles cease to be troubling and get rebranded as mass entertainment?

I was biting on a delicious “Viking Burger” at a re-enactment of the Battle of Clontarf last weekend. It was a jolly, well-organised family event but for a queasy moment I wondered what on earth I was doing there. After all, some accounts say that nearly half the population of Dublin lay dead or badly maimed after the conflict. Would anybody feel like commemorating the fairly recent battle of Sarajevo with an afternoon of sun-drenched amusements?

The desire to experience the thrills of blood-letting at a safe remove is nothing very new in human culture. Well-to-do rubberneckers drove in carriages to witness battles in the 18th and 19th centuries. One definition of “the sublime”: events of earth-shattering significance watched by onlookers who are not themselves in danger.

The Horrible Histories have provided children with cartoon versions of ghoulish events of the past in the guise of an educational aid. Somewhat older kids can watch internet features of the ritual beheading of prisoners by militants, every whit as distressing as the killing of Gadafy. No mediation of the image for younger viewers is possible in a global system of instant transmission.

Respect for life is less common than one might have hoped; but respect for the dead and for the act of dying is also on the wane.

It wasn’t always so. During the first World War no official paper contained a single close-up photograph of a dead body, according to Paul Fussell (though he also says many governments employed official photographers). This censorship helped to prevent demoralisation on the home front: but it may also be that ideas of the sacredness of human life actuated those generals who nonetheless sent youth to the slaughter.

Car crashes
Even today, film reports of fatal car crashes in Europe still keep a discreet distance from the wrecks. I couldn’t help thinking last weekend that the practice of ancient battle re-enactments over the past century has coincided with the rise of spectator sports – and for linked reasons. As modern war-making assumed an ever more impersonal character, killing enemies whose faces one might never see, people may have felt a need to witness a more direct, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.

Age of Drones
In the Age of Drones, modern sport – like diplomacy itself – may be the conduct of old-fashioned war by other means.

My fear is that the re-enactment of war – like its depiction on video games – can desensitise us to what’s really happening. The closer we seem to get to conflict, the more we are really removed. When some people are faced with dire life-threatening situations, their impulse is to take out a camera. The pain of others may be viewed as performance.

This tendency has been reinforced by the way in which so many dead bodies in our culture have been repackaged as educational entertainment (no less). The Chinese bodies on display some time ago in Dublin were treated as mere exhibits. When people questioned the ethics of this, some said that the bodies were probably those of criminals, intended to increase scientific knowledge. The silent implication was that criminals could be treated criminally. There were official denials that this was the case – but even if poverty drove people to give permission for such uses of the bodily remains of a relation, would that ever make it right?

Each body is someone’s father, uncle, cousin – somehow reduced to mere exhibit in a discourse of connoisseurship that seems barbarous, whether used for purposes of science or art.

Brian Boru died a thousand years ago on Good Friday. A thousand years earlier Jesus Christ was slain on the original Good Friday. For the early centuries of Christianity, the image of the crucified criminal was considered too graphic for human contemplation. Eventually, it appeared in art-works and dramatic re-enactments, pervading culture to such a degree that it was banalised for many. Remember the Tramp’s comment in Waiting for Godot on self-comparisons with Jesus: “Yes – but where he lived it was warm – and they crucified quick”.

Many of us as children have been brought to shake hands with the crusader in St Michan’s. However, he was some mother’s son too. This playing with a dead person’s body is an example of what historian EP Thompson once called “the enormous condescension of posterity”. Re-enact, yes – but remember the dignity and pain of every person slain. And teach children to notice these things.

Declan Kiberd teaches Irish Studies at University of Notre Dame

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