A history of Ireland in 100 objects Clonmacnoise crozier, 11th century


Earlier in this series we saw a carved wooden crook from Viking Dublin. Its similarity to this gorgeous bishop’s crozier from the great Irish monastery of Clonmacnoise is striking.

Nothing could provide a more powerful visual contradiction of the old notion that the Vikings were simply an alien presence in Ireland, driven away by Brian Bóruma (Boru) in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf.

The crozier is probably from the shrine of the monastery’s founder, Saint Ciarán. (Ciarán is recorded as appearing hundreds of years after his death to smite a would-be raider with his crozier.) The crest of the crook has a series of dogs apparently biting each other. But the most evocative aspect of the decoration is the snake-like animals in figure-of-eight patterns that decorate the sides. They are in the same Ringerike style used for the wooden crook. Moreover, excavations at High Street in Dublin have also unearthed bone trial pieces in which similar patterns have been practised by craftsmen. The likelihood is, therefore, that the crozier, a sacred Irish object dedicated to an ancient saint, was made in Viking Dublin.

If this seems surprising, it is only because of the power of the story created by his followers of Brian as the hammer of the Vikings, who freed Ireland from a terrible curse. Brian attempted to create a unitary kingdom, calling himself imperator Scottorum, emperor of the Irish. The Battle of Clontarf, in April 1014, was cast in later Irish history as the successful culmination of his attempts to expel the hated Viking invader forever.

It was in fact an example of the way Irish and Viking politics had become intertwined: about half of the troops fighting for Sitric Silkenbeard, the Dublin king, were Leinster allies. Sitric himself was Brian’s stepson and son-in-law, and was half-Irish.

And far from wanting to extirpate Viking influence, Brian’s ambition was to incorporate the thriving towns of Limerick, Waterford and Dublin into his “empire”. Indeed, he had already taken Dublin once, on the resonant date of January 1st, 1000, returning it to Viking control when Sitric submitted as his vassal. Dublin thrived under this arrangement, until Sitric joined a wider Irish revolt against Brian.

Nor was the battle itself decisive: Brian’s forces did not manage to enter Dublin. Sitric (unlike Brian) survived and ruled Dublin until 1036. This is not to say that Clontarf was other than a highly significant event, one that was recalled for centuries throughout northern Europe. But it was essentially a struggle for control of the lucrative Irish Sea trading network, with the powerful Orkney lord Sigurd the Stout taking the opportunity to muscle in on Dublin by supporting Sitric. Ironically the real effect of the battle was to prevent a non-Irish Viking takeover of Dublin. The way was open for Dublin to be more fully integrated into the rest of Ireland. The Clonmacnoise crozier, probably made in the town after the Battle of Clontarf, embodies the way the force that had once terrified the monks had become part of their world.

Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, 01-6777444, museum.ie